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Experience trumps age when it comes to community leadership

It’s 3 p.m. on a weekday--time for the doors to open at the Multicultural Family Resources Society in Edmonton, AB. Kids stream in for homework help, arts, crafts, music and sports lessons. Sounds like many other after school programs across North America, right? What’s unique about the Society is that some of the volunteers leading the after school program are as young as seven years old.

This is part of the School of Soul Leadership Workshops, a mentorship program in which youth spend an entire year working with their elders in the community to learn different perspectives and better understand the issues in their community before leading their peers.

“When the program began, it was a great opportunity for youth to learn from their elders,” says Somkhuun Thongdee, life coach at the Multicultural Family Resources Society. “The program has since evolved to encourage youth to mentor other youth. For example, a few years ago, we had a seven year old leading our arts program. He felt he could do it, and after a year of training, he proved he could.”

Age isn’t always the most important thing – a leader’s ability to lead is based on experience. Recently, a 13 year old who had been in the program for five years mentored a 21 year old new to the community.

Each program is typically led by a team of five youth, resulting in a strong support system for the leaders and the kids they help.

“A lot of the training is very common sense and is tailored to their interests,” said Somkhuun. “It’s about soul-searching – they have to find themselves. We challenge them to figure out their own leadership style based on their own skills and personality. Enabling children to strengthen their leadership skills not only builds confidence, it results in a stronger community.”

Many of the families in the Boyle/Macauley community are refugees and immigrants whose first language isn’t English. As a result, they experience significant language and culture barriers, so the youth leaders also act as cultural translators for parents in the community. During every report card period the parents come and talk to the leaders because they can’t interpret their child’s progress at school.

“It’s a really special moment to see the youth leaders rise to the occasion,” said Winnie Chow-Horn, board chair of the Multicultural Family Resources Society. “These kids face such adversity in their daily lives, but still come every day to give back to the community.”

The Multicultural Family Resources Society received a first-time donation of $40,000 this year through the RBC After School Grants Project.

The RBC After School Grants Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based organizations that provide programs for children and youth aged 6-17 with structured, supervised activities that enhance safety, social skills and self-esteem. Since 1999, RBC has provided more than $27 million in grants to 248 community-based after school programs in Canada, helping almost 29,000 children.