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A safe place for youth in Norman Wells
New youth and elders centre co-ordinator balances programs that are fun and healthy

Chris Puglia
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 3, 2014

Rachel Thorne might be new to Norman Wells but since arriving she has immersed herself in town life and turned her passion for community into helping create a more positive atmosphere for youth.

NNSL photo/graphic

Rachel Thorne, the town of Norman Wells' new recreation/elders centre co-ordinator and community justice co-ordinator, sits with her guitar at the Norman Wells Youth and Elders' Centre. - Chris Puglia/NNSL photo

Thorne, 24, moved to Norman Wells three months ago to take the job as co-ordinator of the youth and elder's centre.

Although originally from New Brunswick, Thorne is no stranger to remote communities.

"I have been working with youth since I was in high school," Thorne said. "I lived in northern Quebec for six months the year after I graduated from McGill and I worked for a non-profit organization called Youth Fusion."

Through that organization, which works to combat school dropout rates, Thorne developed exciting and engaging extracurricular programs for the Cree community of Mistissini. Those programs included a student newspaper, healthy cooking class and an academic engagement program, all designed to improve student retention.

"It worked. They had a 100 per cent dropout rate at the time. They had no graduates for six years prior to the initiation of the Youth Fusion program," she said.

Her passion and excitement for working to improve the lives of youth is obvious when she speaks about her past experience in Quebec and is now demonstrated in her work in Norman Wells.

She said since taking over programming at the youth and elders' centre she has put a focus on creating programs that encourage healthy living and teach life skills. From healthy cooking and fitness programs to arts and music activities, and a homework program, the goal is to engage young people in a positive and fun way while teaching them how to care for their bodies, minds and souls.

Open Tuesday to Saturday, the centre's programs have been a hit and the facility has been averaging approximately 20 youth a night.

"It's been awesome," said Thorne. "Every night it's very busy. On a busy night we get up to 25 kids. On a less busy night we a get a minimum of 15 kids."

Alfred Gully, 15, Rachel Horassi, 13, Amber Taureau, 13 and Serena Shae, 13, have all been going to the youth centre for years and each agreed they like Thorne's approach to programming and structure.

"It's fun to hang out and do lots of activities," said Gully.

They also agreed Thorne creates a feel-good atmosphere at the centre which is both "chill" and "cool," adding that without the centre there would be very little for them to do.

"It's a place where the youth can come and have a safe place to be themselves," said Thorne about the vibe the centre endeavours to promote. "There's no tolerance for bullying, no tolerance for violence, no hate speech. In day-to-day life bullying is such a big issue for teenagers. For them to be able to go somewhere where they know that's just not going to happen is really important ... it really promotes good self-esteem and community among the youth."

As the consistency and positivity at the centre develops, Thorne says her next goal is develop a greater sense of ownership for the facility among its participants with the creation of a youth council.

"What we'd like the youth council to do is sit down and make the decisions with Myles (Erb, recreation programmer) and I," she said, adding that later, once the ideas are approved, the council would then help with organizing and running the events. "They'll also be able to attend council meetings and represent the interests of the youth in the community ... they can actually speak for themselves and I think that is pretty powerful."

With the youth programming well underway, Thorne would also like to reintroduce elders to the centre.

"From what I understand there has not been a lot of programming for the elders in a while," she said.

To start off, a weekly afternoon of cards is underway and that will hopefully expand into more activities geared toward elders and then into activities that bring the youth and elders of the community together.

"I would really like to get some youth and elders socials going on," said Thorne.

However, she said events such as those are difficult to organize when they are not part of an actual event.

"What I am trying to do is to get some kind of traditional programming going," she said.

The idea is to have community elders teach the youth skills such as beading, how to prepare traditional foods, sewing, etc. "to get the youth and elders getting to know each other and working together."

Thorne believes that interaction is important to not only bridge the gap that can sometimes exist between generations but also to create a better sense of community for both elders and youth.

"In our modern society, that's less common and it's a lot easier for people to feel very isolated and misunderstood in our youth. And, it's a lot easier for elders to feel isolated and neglected."

By bringing the two groups together, Thorne not only hopes to tear down that isolation but to also help facilitate the sharing of traditional knowledge and skills.

"We need to promote that," she said. "For them to be able to share that knowledge and pass on those skills is really powerful."

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