By David Archer
Even as a worldwide virus brings hardship, a team in Skidegate offers Haida Gwaii teens belonging and good health. Skidegate Youth Centre (SYC) and its staff, led by Youth Engagement Coordinator Julia Weder, have worked hard to keep young people connected during the pandemic. This has not been an easy year and many plans have been thwarted by COVID-19 restrictions. Regardless, SYC has made it easier for some islanders to find what many people crave: a sense of togetherness and belonging, even at a distance.
Julia began working to bring teens together in fall 2019 when she joined Skidegate Health Centre, the umbrella organization of SYC. The learning curve has been steep. “It’s a huge task to begin a role like this after having been away for a while and not really having been an adult here,” Julia says, but she is committed. She accepted her current position shortly after moving back to the islands upon graduating from university. Her family moved to Haida Gwaii when she was a young child, and she grew up spending lots of time on these islands and in Vancouver. She feels a strong connection to Haida Gwaii. “This is the community I’m going to dedicate my life to,” Julia says.
“As a leader, […] I hope to be able to empower others to lead and feel the strength of a supportive community.” She says she has felt welcomed on her journey as she learns more about her leadership role, the Skidegate community, and Haida culture. “[This role] has opened my life to building relationships with all these amazing young people,” she says, “as well as getting to know local service providers, knowledge holders, and elders.”
In March of 2020, only six months after Julia began working with Skidegate teens, COVID-19 restrictions hit Haida Gwaii and community leaders across the islands had to figure out how to adapt. Limits on public gatherings meant plans for two SYC projects — a science and creativity camp in Skidegate and a hide tanning event in Queen Charlotte — had to be cancelled, but Julia and her team quickly found alternatives. With funding from Gwaii Trust’s Youth Grant already in place, SYC was able to pivot its budget toward COVID-safe activities. They purchased sports supplies like jump ropes and yoga mats, and new musical equipment allowed teens to take lessons on guitar, ukulele, or drums. A year later, seven Skidegate teens continue to take private lessons they began through this program. Events like music lessons and yoga classes continue to be held online, allowing teens to participate in healthy activities remotely.
The creative solutions continued as Julia and the SYC team found new ways to connect teens and families – this time, through their stomachs. Communal meals, of course, were off the table. Instead, through a program funded by a GTS Youth Grant, and in collaboration with Local Food to School Haida Gwaii, volunteers brought care packages of healthy, local food to Skidegate youth. The drops began in fall 2020. Each package included fresh food and a cookbook written in Xaayda Kil (photo below) providing opportunities for families to practice vocabulary while spending time together preparing meals. The recipe for halibut jum (soup) was one of the favourites among Skidegate families. At the same time, SYC held online activities to teach teens about food sovereignty, plants, and traditional medicines. This way, everyone who participated was able to share experiences both online and offline. Food brought people together despite physical distance.
SYC follows a philosophy that values holistic health, and Julia takes this to heart. “It’s so inspiring and motivating to me that addressing one aspect of your health, your wellness, or general identity can expand its benefits to every other part. Everything is interconnected.” Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are all areas that SYC seeks to care for.
Julia says the youth centre aims to provide a welcoming, accessible, decolonized space for youth. It is a place where teens have the freedom to be themselves without the pressures of school, work, or home life. “We hope that each [teen] can fulfill their potential as strong, confident, emotionally intelligent beings and community members.” The youth centre also has a mission to ground youth and staff in Haida language and culture. During the pandemic, this multi-layered mission remains constant, no matter the circumstances.
Last year SYC were also able to offer online activities related to Haida culture, including a popular basket weaving workshop. By the end of 2020, the team was able to organize similar digital events where teens could learn Haida crafts. For example, families participated in traditional drum-making and beading workshops (photo below) led by Haida elders Sgaalaanglaay Gaamdamaay (Vernon Williams Jr.) and SGaaga (Pete Thompson), who taught youth how to make their own necklaces with sinew, glass beads, devil’s club, and rose quartz. SYC also provided board games in Xaayda Kil to help pass the time during the dark winter months.
What’s next for SYC? Skidegate’s teens want to get outdoors, Julia says. As the warmer months arrive, the youth centre is partnering with local tour providers to plan trips to Gwaii Haanas – following current COVID protocols, of course. She looks forward to getting out on the open waters and working on the next phase of programs with her team: youth workers Desiree Wilson and Cole Sankey, and Peer2Peer program workers Taanggunaay Grinder and Reese Burton.
Julia also invites community members to come forward with their ideas. Do you have a skill or knowledge to share? Consider offering your talent to Skidegate Youth Centre. Contact Julia Weder at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how.
To see what SYC has been up to lately visit the Hiit’agan.iina Kuuyas Naay/Skidegate Youth Centre page on Facebook.