The lights were out at the Gilbert Park Boys and Girls Club that frosty winter night. No surprise – it was well past closing. Jenny Isla wasn’t sure why her boyfriend Cole Berens had pulled them away from his cousin’s birthday party to visit the youth centre where they both worked. “I need to find some papers,” sounded a bit suspect.
Isla hurried towards the door, stepping ahead of Berens. When she looked back, he was down on one knee, her mother’s ring held up in his hands.
“I cried,” Isla laughs, recalling the proposal in front of the club that means so much to her and Berens, and to hundreds of youth in Winnipeg’s North End.
Isla and Berens (both graduates of Red River College’s Youth Recreation Activity Worker Program, 2014 and 2015, respectively) first met at the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg when they were members and teen mentors, supporting the 35-year old organization’s goal of empowering youth through free activities that foster healthy living, personal growth and social development.
Having grown up in the North End, Isla had always wanted to work with youth. “I always imagined myself up for a challenge and wanted to be with at-risk youth and children,” she says. When a friend from Sisler High School introduced her to the club, she felt she’d found the right place to pour her energy.
“They made such a difference for me,” she says. “They have no goal but to help – to help me as a teen mentor, to help the kids. I volunteered a couple times a week and they would give advice on how to deal with situations or let me shadow other team members to learn.”
Isla was particularly driven to learn about the Indigenous culture she experienced at the club.
“It’s a beautiful culture and I’m all about learning different things. The art, the dance – it drove me in and I felt like I wanted to give back to the community. Ever since I got together with Cole I’ve experienced that more, because he’s a member of the community. As much as we can, we help the youth stick around the community.”
In 2011, one of Isla’s young mentees pointed out an older brother – another youth mentor across the room. Isla remembers being immediately struck by Berens. It was a first impression that blossomed as the two attended workshops, partnered on projects, and talked about their career ambitions and interests.
The friends soon became a couple, with their shared compassion for kids giving them plenty of common ground. The relationship also gave Isla an unexpected bit of career direction.
“Cole’s mom is a child youth care worker and she’d taken the Youth Recreation Activity Worker Program at RRC back in 2006,” Isla says. “I’d never heard of that program before and once she told me about it, I knew the program was what I wanted to do to build a career with the Boys and Girls Club.”
“I wasn’t really ready for university, it seemed a bit unstructured. I thought Red River College would be a better match for me, and perhaps university down the way.”
Isla says she found the structure and support she needed in the program, as well as a small class size that allowed her to build relationships with instructors as they shared experiences working with youth. Tough content, such as identifying signs of maltreatment and substance abuse, was covered with both pragmatic experience and positive advice. Isla says she appreciates how the realistic approach prepared her to intervene in hard situations, even as the closeness of the classroom let her jokingly call an instructor “Mom” to get her attention.
Now a graduate of the program, Isla still volunteers at the club where she met her partner, accepted his proposal, and recently married in the group’s first on-location wedding.
“It was emotional, but a lot of fun. We had our close family with us and also the Boys and Girls Club staff – the ones that helped us along the way.”
The 20-year-old eventually wants to train to become a social worker and dreams of one day opening a special group home with Berens – large enough that parents can live onsite with their children while learning essential life skills to help their families thrive.
She also has a message for people who write off youth coming from tough backgrounds.
“Give the kids a chance. It bugs me when people tell me I don’t get paid enough for what I do, because it’s a rewarding job. The kids respect, help and acknowledge you. They know you’re more than staff – you’re a caregiver. It’s just about giving them that role model of love and respect.”
Learn more about RRC’s Youth Recreation Activity Worker Program.
Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (Creative Communications, 2013)