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Peer Project celebrates 40th anniversary of kids helping kids

2017 5th Spinathon YAY Mentors and Mentees Group Shot -SUPPLIED

Some of the mentors and mentees at the 5th annual YAY Spinathon fundraiser in January. -COURTESY

\ By Andrea Freedman \

A not-for-profit initiative that is very active in the east end of the city, The Peer Project, has much to be proud of.  The charitable youth organization recently reached its 40th anniversary and has made significant contributions to the well-being of East York youths, especially helping those from Syrian families who are new to Canada make the transition into the community.

Back in 1976, when there was a noticeable increase in juvenile crime, a group of concerned citizens including teachers, police and social workers in Scarborough got together and presented a proposal to the Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services to start a youth organization, which was first approved under the name YAY (Youth Assisting Youth).

In 1992, the organization grew and was selected by the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration‘s HOST program to offer what is known as Newcomer Services to children and youth new to Canada.  The full name was changed to The Peer Project – Youth Assisting Youth (YAY) in 2010.

The Peer Project helps settlement workers, and those who have been identified as kids who need extra help, including those with mental health issues.  Depending on their individual social and emotional health issues, kids aged six to 15 are matched through the One-to-One Peer Mentoring Program with an older youth aged 16 to 29 who will complement their strong points and help them develop healthy relationships that will influence them in positive ways and guide them to stay on the right path.

Mentors are positive role models who encourage youth to develop healthy lifestyles and a positive outlook on life in general.

“It’s tough to be a kid these days,” and it is often even more of a challenge for newcomers says Sally Spencer, Peer Project CEO.

Ms. Spencer says that one of their goals is “breaking down the barriers” with respect to culture.  Intentionally, they do not match a kid of one culture with a mentor of the same culture.  Rather, the match is based on the needs of the mentee and the skill level and location of the mentor.

Mentors go through extensive training, including with respect to cross-cultural and multicultural, discrimination, racism and sensitivity training to deal with mental health and learning disability issues,” she told East York Chronicle.

Everyone benefits from the mentoring system.  Sometimes kids need an older friend who they feel they can trust and talk to for guidance and emotional support; in turn, mentors acquire “valuable, transferable skills and attributes that will help them in the future with parenting, marriage and careers,” she said.

“Mentoring is such a powerful influence and has the ability to change lives. Every person could use a mentor in their life. No matter your age, we learn from each other.”

Around the clock support is available and various programs are offered in order to meet individual needs such as, for example, self-defense classes designed specifically for newcomer girls.

Helpful workshops on topics like cyber bullying awareness are offered for grades 7 and 8 as well as for their families.  Referred to as Clicks and Stones, in these sessions students are taught how to fight cyber bullying.

Mentors meet with their mentees once per week and are encouraged to take the kids out of the house and get them engaged in fun activities, such as the Saddle-up for Success program, where at-risk children get to visit a horse farm out of the city, learn how to ride and to appreciate nature at the same time.

The Peer Project puts on a free event every week, such as skating or bowling, as well as movie nights and outings to Blue Jays and Raptors games, providing the chance for experiences and opportunities for “exploring new worlds.”

Since it began, The Peer Project has made enormous strides as far as helping kids build self-esteem, provide mental health benefits, and has a proven 98% success rate of keeping kids in school and out of the criminal justice system.

“When we put kids together we ask for a one-year commitment,” Ms. Spencer said.  The average, though, is usually about five years, as the bonds they develop are so strong and they know they are making a difference in each other’s lives.

“Youths today are really helping to give back,” she added and they are happy to contribute their time and energy to the project.

Many of its mentors were on other side growing up as mentees and have since gone on to become mentors themselves because they believe in the project so much and because of the long-lasting bonds and friendships that are formed.

Over the years the organization has received several awards including volunteering awards in recognition of the huge impact they make on so many young lives.  The Peer Project has proudly helped over 30,000 kids since its inception.  As there are currently more than 400 kids on their waiting list, they are always looking for volunteers, corporate funding and support through fundraisers like their annual Spin-A-Thon so “we can make it possible for more and more kids to get mentors, and to help kids who want to go on to be mentors to step up and do it.”

The Peer Project has grown every year since it began and is helping more and more at-risk youth in East York become involved and proud members of their community.  It recently held a successful fundraiser and to commemorate its 40-year milestone, an awareness campaign is planned to coincide with Mental Health week in May.

For more information or to make a donation call 416-932-1919 or go to: www.thepeerproject.com.

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