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Celebrating 25 years as a shelter and life-builder for young people in Niagara

Posted Jun 18th, 2019

Founding Members of the RAFT Board Celebrating day one with a commemorative cake

Bob Waite gets how a young person’s fate can be directly affected by the circumstances they face, and the situation they’re in.

As he contemplates the 25th anniversary of The RAFT and its mandate to empower youth in Niagara, he remembers his own challenges. Waite, a current RAFT board member, lived his early years in the roughest areas of Hamilton.

“I could have easily gone astray, because my family did not have much and the environment around me was not good,” he said. However, his home life was stable and positive, he earned steady employment during his formative time.

It paid off. Eventually, Waite earned a graduate degree in physics, became an educator, and later retired as Vice Principal of Niagara District Secondary School in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

In 1994 — the year The RAFT (Niagara Resource Service for Youth) started — Waite took on the task as a representative from his school board to serve on RAFT’s volunteer board. He has stayed with the charity as a board member, and seen it thrive. His experience as an educator, and on the board, imparted an understanding many have shared in their association with The RAFT.

“Teens are basically good,” he said. When their behaviour falls short, it often flows from the environment where were raised. To that end, reliable housing, a big part of The RAFT’s mission, is vital to helping struggling young people establish a better life.

“The longer a youth is without stable housing, the greater the chance they will become permanently homeless,” Waite said. “Helping young people to remain, and grow in a positive community environment became a focus to preventing homelessness for us. The RAFT also assists youth to stay connected to family, friends and school in a positive environment.
“All of this is vital in helping a young person mature into a positive contributor to society.”

On June 17, a charity that has supported thousands of youth and their families in Niagara, and helped young people become resilient, self-sufficient adults, marks its 25th year.

The RAFT (Niagara Resource Service for Youth) traces its roots to a 1992 interfaith committee, many from St. Georges Anglican Church in St. Catharines. It sought to take serious and practical action about community issues facing at-risk and homeless youth.

That drive led to cultivating community connections that remain a lifeblood of The RAFT; from agencies, to social services, employers, housing, education, justice and funding partners.

“It’s been a fulfilling journey as we’ve worked together with our partners to help make a serious, lifelong difference for Niagara’s most vulnerable youth,” said The RAFT executive director Mike Lethby. “We’ve helped steer many of our clients away from debilitating homelessness and chronic job insecurity.”

With Ontario Trillium Foundation Seed funding and help from supporters, the RAFT started as a drop-in resource centre in downtown St. Catharines. Its services expanded to programs designed to empower youth and foster a quality future, both in the shelter and through out the entire Niagara region.

Now based on Centre Street in St. Catharines, cornerstone RAFT programs and services include:

• Drop-in Resource Centre
• Youth Reconnect
• After School and Summer Programs
• Youth in Transition
• Housing First
• Social Enterprise

In addition, a novel RAFT program Eternal Routes — profiled in a recent CBC documentary Next of Kin— reconnects youth unable to live with their parents by bring them back to their cultural roots and introducing them to members of their extended family.

Past board member John Osczypko has also been a witness to impactful work The RAFT does. He was with the formative organization when it was just a steering committee that brought together representation from St. Georges, community activists and others.
“We met to discuss the unmet needs of youth in our community,” he said. That mission set the ball rolling.

After a board of directors was formed, The RAFT became incorporated as a not-for-profit charity based in St. Catharines. As a boost, $25,000 in Trillium Seed funding was given to the church for a youth drop-in-project that was open during evenings, with free space provided on Church Street by the Housing Help Centre. There, Osczypko oversaw the nascent program and its two staff.

“As a founding RAFT member, I’ve seen it evolve from its start as a Drop-In Centre, to an organization that helps youth navigate daily challenges, by providing them with guidance and support to help them reach their full potential,” said Osczypko, also the current Executive Director of Gateway Residential and Community Support Services in Welland.

“RAFT’s growth has been challenging and demanding,” said Osczypko, who also oversaw the initial youth drop-in centre on Church Street in St. Catharines. “But thanks to committed board members and staff, its evolution has been extremely successful.”

RAFT supporters are passionate in their mission to empower youth and help them achieve dignity, stable housing and employment in their lives,” said Kevin Kortekaas, The RAFT Board Chair.

“This isn’t an easy task for young people, who often come to us with nowhere else to turn,” Kortekaas said. “It’s inspiring to hear about the differences made to so many of these lives, over a quarter century. We look forward to another long chapter helping Niagara’s youth, in focused ways we know has an impact.

“To that end, we are always seeking partners, and especially donors, to ensure we can continue this critical work.”

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