The Little Centre that Could: MDJ Pierrefonds has Become a Safe Sanctuary for West Island Youth
Two dedicated Maison Des Jeunes Youth Workers are on a Mission to let West Islanders know "We are not a place for bad kids. You don't know their backgrounds."
While driving up the hustle and bustle of Sources boulevard, it's rather easy to miss one of the two tiny houses located just off of Ross street. Perhaps, those who take notice of this tiny Pierrefonds building may assume it's merely a residence whose owners have no intention of selling. Others may think it's a property waiting to be commercialized. Those two things will never happen as the house on 4855 Sources Blvd. may be one of the most important and crucial refuges for West Island youth.
Welcome to 'Maison Des Jeunes': a free, non-profit organization where West Islanders, ages 12-17 work with wonderful mentors that guide them to achieve their fullest potential. The centre is also known for creating an after-school environment where youth can go for homework help, socialize with others as well as have important and meaningful discussions with their mentors and friends. However, even though 'MDJ' is an important location to motivate and inspire teenagers, it is in dire need of help from all West Islanders.
Kris Artuso spoke to MDJ Coordinator, Alicia Piercy and Youth Worker, Samantha D'Amico in a West Island News Exclusive Interview.
Kris: If you had to give the perfect description of MDJ, what would it be?
Alicia: We like to think of ourselves as a resource and prevention centre. Our primary goal is to work with youth and give them tips, resources, and activities for support before something happens. We do a lot of work on social skills, stress management and on top of that, since we form such a strong relationship with them, if we realize that one of them has an issue they need more support with (going to the CLSC, visit a psychologist, etc.) we'll also offer accompaniment. Not in the actual appointment, of course, but we'll go with them, show them the ropes, and offer that support.
Kris: What do you mean by "before something happens"?
Samantha: It's happened before where a youth is going through a problem... and any youth from any background goes through problems, by the way. We create a support system. We had a youth come in afraid that her friend was dealing with an eating disorder. She had no idea how to approach it. We're not medical experts in treating eating disorders per se, but we are equipped with many recourses and contacts to give the youth. It's part of harm reduction.
Alicia: We are not psychologists, doctors or social workers. That's not our position. Our role is to support. We really focus on providing the youth with the tools that they may need to overcome obstacles.
Samantha: It's important that we provide a safe space where they feel comfortable talking to us .
Alicia: There have been times when we realized that a youth may need extra support, be it suicide intervention, calling a social worker, needing to go to the CLSC - or even if they are struggling with personal relationships. We can be that support but we'd also offer those external resources (psychologist, rehabilitation) right away and provide accompaniment if they wanted.
Samantha: In an extreme case, if we notice a youth may have a drinking problem or we've noticed they're coping with drugs... well, we're not in a position to scold them or tell them how we think they should live their life. We would approach it by maybe asking, "We've noticed that this may be a pattern, do you think it is?" or we'll sit down and say, "let's talk about this situation so that you may know what you're consuming and the consequences of what you're doing."
Of course, we'll also give them the contacts they need to seek help. These are obviously extreme cases. We also work with youth who may have anxiety problems or simply homework issues.
Kris: It's amazing to see how much the youth open up to you. What do you think it is that would make them trust you versus someone at school or parent?
Alicia: I think if people spend any amount of time at the centre, they would quickly see why. Firstly, we're always there and nothing is off-topic. We really try to offer a completely judgment-free zone. We've had youth come to talk to us about something and at first, you can see they're not sure how we'll respond. Of course, we proceed to respond in a way that's opening- maybe challenging, but never accusatory. The basis is about listening. Not giving advice. Not telling them what to do. Just listening to their words and saying "Wow. That sounds like it's got to be tough. What do you think we can do about it?" If it means listening or talking to them for an hour then that's what we're going to do.
Samantha: Personally, I adore my parents but I'll admit that there were a lot of things that I didn't feel comfortable talking about with them. You feel there may be judgment or it would be uncomfortable or you might get in trouble. It's the same with some teachers at school. There's a clear sense of who's in a role of authority whereas at MDJ, the staff has all the values that the youth would want in a mentor but they also know we'll never get angry at them.
Alicia: Before COVID, we were open 5 days a week from 3 to 9PM. The youth would be there the entire time. We'd cook and eat with them, hang out and play games and of course, we always dedicate time to having hard discussions with each other. They see how we interact with other youth and notice that we never judge them for asking any questions.
Kris: I can imagine parents wanting to know what their kids tell you?
Alicia: Confidentiality is key. What they tell us is confidential unless of course, it's something that may be harmful to them or others. If a parent comes to us wanting to know what their child has been talking to us about, we will not divulge that information. When the youth first come to MDJ, we must explain to them AND their parent that everything said is confidential.
Kris: MDJ is a non-profit organization located in Pierrefonds. You've raised money via fundraisers. Have you reached out to the city and have they helped you in any way?
Alicia: So, I just applied for a grant that's given out by the city. A lot of the money we receive comes from grants given by the city of Pierrefonds. That is definitely something that they provide to us. We essentially write the grant proposal, they'll look it over and provide us with the money if they accept. We also do have a good relationship with some members within the city so if there's something we need them to look into we can definitely contact them for support. We do have a good relationship.
Kris: From funding to debunking common misconceptions, what do you need help with the most from the public?
Alicia: Okay. *Breathes deeply* We are not a place for "bad kids." I cannot stress this enough. People have come up to me and said, "Oh you must deal with a lot of rough kids". I don't think any of us can label someone as a "rough kid." You don't know their background. And to be clear, we get youth from ALL sectors of life. It's not a place to meet up and do bad things.
Samantha: We're definitely not a daycare for teenagers who are "bad." Just like you would let your kids go to a mall and hang out with different people, MDJ is a place where they can hang out with friends and have a good support group and positive mentors so that they don't do anything bad to themselves. I'm actually not a fan of the term "at-risk youth." Let's face it. All youth are at risk and so are many adults.
At the end of the day, any well-adjusted child may be offered to do something bad just like someone you would perceive as a "bad child" can do the absolute sweetest, most thoughtful thing. MDJ is for every youth. It's there to better them. Anyone can do better. When someone has the support they need, they can flourish in any way. I have never met a youth that I thought has no potential. All these kids are so fantastic and they just need a little push to show the world how great they are. You can say they're at risk but let's face it, we're all at risk.
Alicia: Of course, I will also always say that funding is important as well but I think above everything else, it's just for West Islanders to understand who we are and to get more people to refer their youth to us. Let them come and see what we're all about and we'll find a place for you, no matter what. If you see youth in need refer them to us.
Kris: Of course, I have to ask how you've adapted to COVID-19?
Samantha: At first we had to close our doors and we assumed we would re-open shortly. Two months in, we really started to feel the consequences of lockdown. What was great though was that we started doing virtual meetings through Zoom. Right now, every day that we're (virtually) open, we have something planned. We may do an online game or have an open discussion. Of course, a lot of kids are having zoom fatigue. I've contacted other youth centres in Ontario as well and they've said they're trying to do online activities it really isn't the same. Our niche is that we interact in person and we build relationships. We feel like family but there's such a disconnect when doing that through an online medium.
Kris: You both seem extremely dedicated to your careers at MDJ. What made you want to work here?
Alicia: I started volunteering. I was a teacher and wanted to gain more experience working with teenagers and I just fell in love with it completely. What I love is that it's 100% aligned with my values and what I believe is the right way to do things. We don't shut our doors to anyone. I'll be honest there have been times where we realized some youth's needs are too great for what we can handle. We'll try to but if we can't, we'll refer them to the proper experts. It's also a place of education. The youth might come to me with a problem and like everyone else, I don't have answers to all the questions so instead of just dismissing it, we'll sit down, research, and see how we can figure it out.
Samantha: I did my stage for Human Relations with MDJ. When I thought of what my dream job would be, working at MDJ was 100% that. It's my outlet for helping people, building good relationships with youth and it's very fulfilling. We really learn from each other.
Alicia: The second you go there, you feel very much at home.
Samantha: The youth have told me they feel like MDJ is like their second home which is so fulfilling because it's the atmosphere we want to create. Comfort.
Until they re-open, Maison Des Jeunes will be operating virtually, Tuesdays-Saturdays from 3-9PM. For more information, visit Maison Des Jeunes De Pierrefonds' Website, Instagram or contact firstname.lastname@example.org