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“This is a ‘boots on the ground’ profession,” says Rebecca Stiller, associate manager in the Chimo Youth Retreat Centre’s family wellness program. Stiller is an alumna of and faculty member with MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program.

The other 23 hours: How child and youth care workers support young people where they live

March 1, 2021 | Society

Experiencing life alongside young people in their homes and schools is a cornerstone of child and youth care – one of the first books written about the field is called The Other 23 Hours.

“This is a ‘boots on the ground’ profession,” says Rebecca Stiller, associate manager in the Chimo Youth Retreat Centre’s family wellness program. “While other professionals might spend an hour at a time with children or youth who have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or behavioural issues, we live alongside them. Everything we do – from cooking with a young person as they work toward independence or playing basketball with a seven-year-old who is struggling in school – is about relationships.”

Building and sustaining those connections with people during a pandemic, says Stiller, comes with new challenges – and opportunities. “We’re navigating a new virtual life space, supporting children and youth online, and providing programs and services today that a year-and-a-half ago we would never have predicted. It’s a vulnerable time, and we need practitioners who are ready and able to engage in a way that will help people get through it.”

Preparing professionals to do just that is at the heart of MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program.

From their first day, students focus on what it means to “be in relationship" with young people, help them process their trauma and be responsive to their needs. Stiller’s first day at MacEwan may have been more than a decade ago, but she remembers it vividly.

“It was not at all like the post-secondary experience you typically see in the media,” she says. “I was struck by how engaged the professors were in the activities we were doing – they worked alongside us, encouraged us and shared their experiences. It was a powerful and unique way to be introduced to a profession that is all about relationships.”

 

STORY_IMG_Getty-1158890183 ”We need people who are up for a challenge, who see relationships as a powerful agent for change, and who are ready to embrace the privilege of working alongside young people and their families through difficult times,” says Stiller. Photo taken before COVID-19.

 

And there’s no time to waste in understanding just how critical relationships are. Only two weeks into the program, students begin the first of three field placements. For Stiller, that first placement was in an elementary school. She was paired with a mentor and supported students with specialized behavioural and learning needs, including a seven-year-old struggling to focus in class. Talk therapy and counselling hadn’t worked, so Stiller was asked to spend some time with him. They played basketball for short periods, and over time he began to open up.

“I was terrified at first,” she recalls. “But in hindsight, that early experience was so important. I saw firsthand how powerful taking the time to build a relationship with someone could be. It wasn’t about what I did to help that seven-year-old boy; I wasn’t his saviour. It was about the alliance we built together and him seeing that things could be different.”

While that first field placement confirmed for Stiller that she was where she needed to be, her second placement – supporting adolescent parents – sealed her future.

“I saw how creating little moments as simple as making a young person’s lunch and leaving it in the fridge for them or welcoming them home even though they were late could demonstrate what care looks like,” says Stiller. “How those small things could help a young parent see the world differently: as a place where they can form positive relationships and where there might be more hope than they thought. My life was forever changed.”

The same week she graduated from MacEwan, Stiller was back at Chimo working full-time in the family wellness program. Six years later, she oversees kinship care and offers intensive family support for grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and other relatives who step forward to care for their relatives’ children.

And a decade after she began her journey in MacEwan’s Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program, she is back at the university – now as a sessional instructor – helping prepare her future colleagues. Like all faculty members in the program, Stiller brings her experience as a practitioner to her classroom.

“Everything we do is very field-driven and field-focused,” she says. “We are living in a time of disconnection, and we need people who are prepared to work in relational fields like child and youth care. We need people who are up for a challenge, who see relationships as a powerful agent for change, and who are ready to embrace the privilege of working alongside young people and their families through difficult times.”

 

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