With The Upstream Project’s Pilot Phase coming to an end, we thought it would be great to hear from Yvonne Kelly – one of the key players involved in the project from the very beginning. Yvonne Kelly is the Community Resource Facilitator for the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). With her passion and leadership, she has helped tremendously in spearheading The Upstream Project in York Region!
In this blog post, Yvonne talks about how The Upstream Project started in York Region, the challenges encountered, the valuable learnings gained, and where we will go next.
TLDR (too long didn’t read)? Head to the very bottom of the post for some of Yvonne’s short and to-the-point insights on implementing The Upstream Project in your community!
The Upstream Project that was implemented in five schools in Ontario this year is wrapping up its first year of the pilot phase. In York Region, we were fortunate to be able to pilot the project in one elementary school and two secondary schools. For those of us involved in getting to this place in time, the journey started several years ago; as most good things do – they take time. Especially when it comes to community development, issues related to poverty, homelessness and youth. Many comment that these are complex issues, and that they are. But for that reason, it can be a real challenge to get traction on addressing issues when they largely impact marginalized and “voiceless” populations like homeless youth. In some respects, the housing crisis in Canada that is affecting an increasing number of individuals and families each and every day has provided the impetus for growing attention being paid to how to prevent homelessness in the first place. A unique little approach some of us like to refer to as an UPSTREAM approach. After all, we have the research which demonstrates that preventing homelessness saves us at least five times what it costs us to remediate it, not to mention the costs in human suffering, loss of dignity and individual potential. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, led by Stephen Gaetz, deserves a great deal of credit for mobilizing knowledge, conducting research, increasing awareness of the impacts and costs of homelessness, and also identifying best practice models for doing the important work of prevention that brought us to this point in our journey.
So, a bit more about our experience here in York Region. Between January 2012 and June 2013, the Lunch and Learn Series “Reimagining Youth Homelessness” was co-hosted by United Way of York Region, York University and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. This series set the stage for comprehensive learning about best practices across Canada, and discussions that involved cross-sectoral partners and service providers in York Region. In the summer of 2013, research was conducted with 60 young people experiencing homelessness in York Region that culminated in the report “Leaving Home – Youth Homelessness in York Region” which was released in November 2014. For the next year and a half, research would be done to identify evidence-based, wrap-around models for the prevention of youth homelessness. Those 18 months would also involve numerous conversations with potential school boards, service providers and ministries (education, housing, etc.) in Ontario. It wouldn’t be until the Spring of 2016 that several of us from YRDSB were invited to attend a presentation in Toronto by the founders of The Geelong Project, which originated in Australia. At that time, Raising the Roof was extending an invitation to both our school board and the Niagara District School Board, along with 360°kids and the RAFT Youth Services to participate in the first Canadian Pilot of The Geelong Project, which would be called The Upstream Project here in Canada. It would be another 17 months before board approval of the partnership was granted and the implementation phase of the pilot project would begin in three YRDSB schools.
Did I mention that good things take time? It was six years from the first Lunch and Learn Presentation on Youth Homelessness in York Region in January 2012, to this January 2018 when the first survey was implemented at Huron Heights Secondary School in Newmarket. And now four months later we are seeing the results – the early identification of students who are struggling with challenges at home, with their peers, issues related to identity, feelings of exclusion, and of course mental health challenges. All of which represent risk factors which can increase the likelihood of youth becoming homeless. The findings across both boards are in keeping with what we know from the Ontario Child Health Study conducted by the Offord Centre for Child Health Studies – 1 in 5 young people are struggling with diagnosable social-emotional, mental health concerns. The good news is that The Upstream Project involves early identification, wrap-around supports to best meet the needs of young people and family reunification wherever possible, appropriate, and in the best interests of the young person. When we know that such a significant percentage of our young people are struggling and that they are at increased risk when issues go unchecked, the responsible thing to do is to identify and intervene as early as possible. This project and approach has the ability to do just that.
Where will we go next?
The pilot of The Upstream Project at YRDSB will continue. We are now in a phase now of reviewing what we have learned from the initial implementation, identifying any gaps in service that we can continue to advocate for, and planning next steps to improve and build on the capacity of the collaborative to provide our students with the spectrum of supports and opportunities that they require to be healthy and successful. There are several Wrap-Around Models of prevention, intervention and collaborative service delivery to learn from and adapt to our situation, which I look forward to being part of investigating in the months and years ahead.
Meaning behind the project’s name
And now a little bit about the name UPSTREAM – it can mean different things to different people. While in this context it is most commonly used in reference to the work you do early on, to prevent homelessness from happening. It can also reflect the nature of the work when you are attempting to do something new and outside of the box. When you’re in a pilot phase, you are trying new things – new ways of doing things – it can truly feel like you’re trying to swim upstream against the current of accepted practices, the way things are usually done, what we’re most comfortable with and what our structures or systems are constructed to do. In the case of mental health or health outcomes in general, our most common approach is to treat the symptom or the problem when it becomes obvious or of crisis proportions. The literature and research on prevention and preventative health approaches is robust; however, it is a forward thinking approach that takes upfront investment of time and resources, which is not how our systems are normally set up to function. And of course, it takes political will and people to champion it in spite of the costs and often the risks involved. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of those who championed this project in and outside of our board.
I see The Upstream Pilot Project as one attempt at doing something that requires a shift in our thinking about the way we carry out the business of meeting the mental health and social-emotional needs of our young people. The nature of any pilot project is to embark on a journey that doesn’t necessarily have everything figured out in advance, a guaranteed set of outcomes or a clear path in sight. While we ask our students to “take risks”, “learn from their mistakes” (21st Century Learning Skills) and tell them that the best learning is often the result of our failures, as adults we seem to have a much harder time learning these lessons for ourselves or stepping into spaces that are a bit unknown. Pilot projects such as this also utilize iterative design, yet another term that we’ve been using more recently in education, meaning that as we build or design something, we learn through the process and from that learning we make changes and adjustments along the way. The need for adjustments is not seen as failure but as a necessary part of the process to get us to a place where we want to go. Not knowing everything we are about to learn or where we will end up is often the most intimidating and yes, fear-inducing part of the work and yet we know that we must feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s what we would tell our students to do and we can always benefit from taking a little of our own good advice. As we continue on this journey with our partners, The Upstream Project, Raising the Roof and 360°kids, I am encouraged by knowing that we are trying something different, that we are being courageous in doing so, and that we are on a learning journey that will achieve successful results for our students and families.
TDLR (Too long didn’t read)?
Here are some of Yvonne’s short and to-the-point insights about getting The Upstream Project implemented in your community!
Aligning the Work with Goals of Education
- All children and youth have one place in common – School
- It’s critical to identify goals and outcomes that align with education
- A general consensus that student well-being (physical, mental, spiritual) impacts ability to learn and succeed in school
- Student Well-Being
- Mental Health Strategy
- Equity and Inclusion for All Students
Finding your Champions (may take some time)
- Individuals that recognize the Importance of the issue and role that schools can play
- Are in a position to make decisions or influence decision makers
- Have connections to broader community, partners, and organizations
- Principals, Superintendents, Student Services, Mental Health Leads, Trustee
Anticipating/Addressing Any Roadblocks or Resistance (may take even longer)
- Data collection and confidentiality
- Community Perceptions – Stigma
- School and Board’s capacity to collaborate and meet the needs that are uncovered
- Research and Preparation: Successful promotion requires a strong understanding of the goals, outcomes and evidence base for the initiative.
- Persistence and determination: It may take a few attempts to find the right champions.
- Building a Base of Support: Other partners and allies
- Doing the Detail work that allows others to feel confident and commit
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