Unveiling Youth Potential at the SOS Congo Tutoring Program

Magic happens every Monday and Wednesday afternoon in a nondescript industrial condo in Calgary’s northeast. Our time together starts with a little bit of music in our center as the youth slowly make their way from school.  Each youth arrives at the space with a different story, but they know they will find a safe space and a welcoming community when they arrive at the center.  As I ask each youth how their day has been, the room is suddenly animated with soulful energy, even though the youth are typically tired after a long day. They respond by saying things like, “Yo, I’m so tired today; I didn’t sleep till 2 am.” Another might respond with, “A man, I'm so tired; I had three exams today.”  I’ve asked, why do you come if you are so tired, you could be at home taking a nap. They respond by saying that we don’t get our work done and have fun here.

The tired expression on their faces quickly fades away as they eat snacks and joke around. They know the routine now, we open the doors at 4 pm, we give you a chance to arrive by five, get settled, and have a light snack, and by 5 pm, the youth start to work on their homework.  We ask them to work at least two hours per day.  We take a half-hour break to eat a meal together, and by eight pm, most youths are returning home.  We average about fifteen youths per session.  We do our best to support the youth with their homework and to encourage them as they encounter challenges.  We intend for this program to be a tutoring program, but now it's more than that.  We are becoming a community.  The youth care about each other, though many attend different schools; they help each other out.  There is only one other tutor that comes on Mondays.  The rest of the time we employ the “each one teach(es) one” philosophy, where the youth lean on each other to find answers.  The youth also encourage one another and celebrate each other's achievements.

One of the youths that comes to the program is known as “an academic weapon.”  She is in IB and generally gets good grades; she comes to the program mostly for a quiet place to study and for the community. She is also often the first to congratulate others as they begin to achieve grades that are routine for her. The culture was developed to encourage one another, has helped the youth to be open and vulnerable with one another. The students are less concerned about sharing their grades now than they were when the program first started. Youths can say, “I got an 85 on my exam,” and know that the entire will be happy for them. Or they say I’ve missed too many classes, “I feel like I'm going to fail my exam tomorrow,” and know that they will receive the support that they need.

A challenge we had to overcome was that about half the youth, on any given day, would come to the center for tutoring, yet they had no homework. All their homework and textbooks either remain at school, are only accessible via an online learning portal, or, in some instances, the youth are not well integrated into the classroom, so they simply don’t have any homework.  Youth in this category have greatly benefited from going through the Canada Bridges UYP program.  UYP stands for Unveiling Youth Potential. The program encourages youth to look at their experiences and personal stories as a source of wisdom, inspiration, and confidence.  For students who don’t often receive positive feedback at school, going through the UYP has helped many youths improve their self-esteem and become leaders in the community.

This group works well together, but becoming a community is also about knowing how to have fun.  To achieve this, we plan for activities.  The group enjoys listening to music, dancing, and playing games like Werewolf, Jenga, and UNO. As the school wraps up, the youth in the program are being intentional about planning activities so that they can stay connected. We plan to have more activities outside our center, like visiting universities or connecting with other communities within Treaty 7.

There is a lot of exciting work happening although we don’t have enough laptops for all the youth who need them, we don’t have Wi-Fi in the space, and we lack volunteers to help drive the youth home. Despite these challenges, we have been meeting our goals, the youth's grades are improving, we have fun together, and perhaps most importantly, the youth attend feel a sense of community and belonging.