Earlier this month, Newcomer Youth Leadership Development (NYLD) alumni from eight centres across the GTA gathered to mingle, share stories, and celebrate the program’s ten year anniversary. The spirit of friendship and fun was very much alive at this event, and though many alumni had never met, all were connected by a program that was once a big part of their lives. (Remember all of those icebreakers?) Above all, NYLD alumni share the commonality of having once come to a new country and, for a time, having found a place to grow at the YMCA.
This is especially important because, at the time of the birth of NYLD, few (if any) programs existed for newcomer youth. Leora Sas van der Linden, Manager of Newcomer Youth Settlement Programs at the YMCA, believes in the importance of young people having spaces that can contribute to their growth. “They’re already in that really difficult state of adolescence where it can be stressful for everybody,” she says. “On top of that, being in a new country makes it difficult for them to express themselves, to pursue their dreams, and to add their voice to the conversation.” The goal of the program, Leora says, is to try and instill that “it doesn’t matter that you’re new. You have a lot of skills and experience from your own country that are transferrable.”
Ye Zhao is an NYLD alumni and masters student at the University of Toronto. When she first joined NYLD almost ten years ago, she immediately felt at home. “All the program participants are sharing the same kind of experience,” she explained. “The same language level, the same kind of knowledge about the Canadian culture, so at least we can relate to each other.”
“It felt like home,” Ye says, “but at the same time it still pushes you to do things that you didn’t think you could do. The more successes you have, the more confidence you have, and the more courage you have to strive for the next thing that you don’t think you can do.”
While the program helps newcomers gain the settlement skills that they need, the emphasis has always been on what youth are capable of, not what they lack. NYLD participants have ample opportunity to shine: from organizing an annual conference, to serving as a mentor for other youth, to volunteering in their community, youth gain confidence by showing their capabilities in a time when they may otherwise lack the resources to do so.
“I think at the crux of NYLD is making connections in your community,” says Leora. “If you have a positive place to go where you feel a sense of belonging, where you feel like you’re doing something meaningful with your time, where you can get advice from someone who is trustworthy, all of those can contribute to creating healthy individuals.”