A basketball game is starting in the Crystal Kids Youth Centre’s gym and a staff member is designating positions with six boys.
The focused and friendly energy highlights a core premise of Crystal Kids: to provide positive mentoring and individual engagement with youth. The centre’s approach is flexible within a programmed structure.
“There’s a purpose with every interaction the staff have with the child,” explained Bryan LeFleche, president of the centre’s board of directors.
Focusing on relationships and capacity building works. “The first thing we see is the rate of kids graduating high school, and the number of kids with part-time jobs,” said LeFleche.
Crystal Kids was founded 23 years ago to support at-risk and vulnerable inner-city children and youth. In 1999, the property at 87 Street and 118 Avenue became available and the building, which daily accommodates up to 60 youth aged 6 to 17, followed.
Youth may visit briefly to stabilize a situation, or for a specific program. Others go a few days a week. For some, Crystal Kids is a vital focal point.
“They’re here from open to close. Some kids grew up here,” said LeFleche.
Audrey Luchianov, centre supervisor, explained programming is designed for the long-term goal in helping youth become their best selves.
“We don’t ask a child to meet the criteria of a program, we change the program to meet the needs of the child. We accomplish this by knowing all of our youth as individuals,” she said, noting it’s common for newcomers to withold their real name at first.
“My general response is, ‘I’ll call you whatever you want as long as it’s not derogatory’. And I will call them anything, from Superman to Your Majesty, if that’s what empowers them to feel safe and comfortable.”
Crystal Kids is open daily on a drop-in basis. The kitchen feeds between 40 to 60 youth daily, providing lunch, an afternoon snack, and supper. Crystal Kids is a client of Edmonton Food Bank, but they buy extras like milk and meat. There is also private and government funding, fundraising, and sponsorship.
Summer activities include trips to parks or bike rides, along with events like lemonade fundraising. The two programming pillars—intentional mentoring and harm reduction—mean children are in a safe, supervised environment from which staff can help build positive life choices. The child to staff ratio is eight to one.
“It’s common for us to work with youth on self-improvement goals over a number of months and even years,” said Luchianov.
When learning food handling and cooking, youth build a trusting relationship with an adult mentor. Literacy is another program, and time is set aside after supper to read.
“Academic success is very important here. Literacy, in my opinion, is the most important program here,” said LeFleche.
Kristina is a Grade 12 student who first attended in Grade 2 and is working in the kitchen for the summer.
“It’s always been a home for me,” she said. “I would come here to hang with the staff. Having people here is important.”
She said Grade 8 was difficult, and forging friendships at the centre was invaluable.
“Lots of school kids came here. It’s a great place to make friends.”
Kaleaha, a Grade 8 student, learned about Crystal Kids from her cousins. She agrees friendships are a big reason for staying.
“I don’t live near here, but when I come to see my grandmother, I always drop in,” she said.
Miri Peterson, executive director, discusses the culture.
“We describe the connection as organic but that’s because it is truly hard to describe. Children intuitively know this is their safe place and they are given permission to truly be children.”
LeFleche finds Crystal Kids gratifying despite challenges.
“When you see a youth come back and talk about how he graduated from carpentry at NAIT, it’s very gratifying. I’ve definitely seen results on an individual basis.”
Visit crystalkids.org for information.
Header Image: From left to right: Kristina, Miri Peterson, Kathelene, Shjloh, and James. Credit: Rebecca Lippiatt.