A helping hand

By Candice O’Grady

At the age of 17 and with a baby to care for, Francine Casault was facing homelessness.

Moving into the Youville Centre, a school and social service outlet for teenage mothers, saved her from taking to the streets of Ottawa.

“When I went into residence I had nothing else but the clothes on my back and my young daughter in my arms,” she says now.

Today, the 33-year-old owns her own home and business, working as an independent mortgage broker, and her daughter will soon be graduating from high school. She says Youville saved her life.

“I don’t believe I would have achieved what I’ve achieved today without Youville because I don’t think I’d be alive today.”

Helping young mothers to gain this level of independence is the reason Sister Betty Ann Kinsella, and a group of volunteers, founded the Youville Centre in 1985. According to Kinsella, though, it all started in the small town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

A member of the Grey Sisters, an order founded by the first Canadian-born saint Marguerite d’Youville, Kinsella wanted to serve the community by establishing co-operative housing. This decision carried her to the East Coast where, in Antigonish, she learned the gritty how-to’s of co-operative housing. During her stay she was reading articles, mostly in popular American magazines like Time and Newsweek, about the plight of single mothers.

She discovered that although a woman could decide to keep her child at 16, she could not sign a lease before reaching the age of 18.

In keeping with the motto of the Grey Sisters — “wherever there is a need” — Kinsella returned to Ottawa to establish a high school and housing program for young mothers, with the help of volunteers city-wide.

“It was based on spontaneity and motivation and desire to help,” she says. “So there’s where Mother Youville came right in, you give a need and people are generous enough to suddenly do it.”

Two years later, in 1987, the Youville Centre opened its doors on 19 Melrose Avenue in an old French school where it remained until 2002, before moving to its current home in Sandy Hill.

Although Youville no longer offers residence to students, the centre is a high school, day care and social services provider for teenage mothers between the ages of 15 and 20. There are currently 48 students and four teachers, as well as counsellors, day-care workers, a nutritionist and an outreach co-ordinator who helps students find housing.

Colleen Shirley worked as the outreach co-ordinator for 17 years before retiring in May. She says that the lives of young mothers are complex.

“They face a daunting combination of problems including a lack of money for basic needs, inadequate housing, loneliness and the inability to continue a high school education.”

The students at Youville come from many backgrounds, although growing up in dysfunctional homes has marked many with poverty, alcoholism, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, violence, and in some cases prostitution. Helping these young mothers find safe and affordable housing is a responsibility that Shirley made personal.

“When (the students) would come in to discuss housing with me . . . they knew it anyway from the picture on my desk, but I used to tell them I have three girls,” she says. “I would tell them this is exactly what I would suggest to them if they were in your place.”

Tania Valladares and her nine-month-old son Jacob have been at Youville since September. The centre’s caring atmosphere allows her and her peers to succeed, she says. Valladares’ goal is to become a teacher.

“I know a lot of people who have had babies and they’re young . . . and they feel like they can’t go back to school,” she says. “I think this is a good place for (going back to school), it just really supports you and encourages you.”

The daycare, on the ground floor of the building, divides children into three age groups, each room bearing the name of a different flower: daffodil, tiger lily and snap dragon. Having a child-care centre in the same building allows Valladares to continue breastfeeding Jacob, a decision she feels is important.

All of the women at Youville are living below the poverty line according to executive director, Judi Sarginson. Many cannot afford private daycare, without which going back to school is impossible.

A former teacher and elementary school principal, Sarginson described her move to Youville 18 months ago as “a beautiful change.” She believes education in general, and the centre in particular, are powerful tools in the struggle against poverty.

“We are breaking cycles,” she says. “We’re breaking the poverty cycle. We’re breaking the dependence cycle. We’re breaking the lack of education cycle. We’re helping them to have functional families who cope well with challenges.”

The young mothers agree.

Seventeen-year-old Missy McAleer views education as the means to a good life for herself and her daughter Amber-Rose. She hopes to first wear the purple graduation robe at Youville before continuing studies in nursing.

“I have to support a kid now,” she says. “You have to go out there and go to school and get a job, and go to college to make a good living . . . not finishing high school you’re not going to get very far in life.”

Education and daycare are two of the three main goals that Kinsella, and the other founding members, set out to fulfill through Youville. The third is nurturing, which is met in part by the emotional support available to the young mothers through counsellors, peers and staff at the centre.

Nurturing also involves meeting basic physical needs. Out of the back corner of the gym, which is lined with strollers and colourful toys, Youville operates a food bank. The stage has been converted into a swap-shop where mothers can trade-in clothing their children have outgrown.

Due in part to violence some students have experienced at the hands of men, Youville is mostly a women’s-only space. There are a few male staff, though, including the coordinator of the young father’s program, which meets weekly to play sports, cook and discuss issues often related to parenting.

Michelle Torunski finds the female atmosphere very supportive, unlike the catty stereotype of all-girl environments. No one at Youville gets bored when diapers come up in conversation, she says, laughing. Her son Carter is 16 months old and Torunski has just returned to school, choosing to stay home with him in his infancy.

As with the other students, Youville is a starting point for Torunski who plans on going into psychology. Education is not only about life-success or about setting an example for her son, although both are important to her. She also believes in educating the public about young mothers, and Youville has given her the platform to do so.

Torunski and other students visit local high schools to talk about their lives.

“Young moms have always been around, but I think now we’re not just going to stand around . . . and let people say whatever they want about us,” she said. “Just because we have babies young doesn’t make us bad mothers and we want to get out and tell people that.”

In the spirit of the Grey Sisters, Torunski also views education as her way to give something back.

“The fact that people help us so much here, I guess we just want to help them out too . . . in whatever way we can.”