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PHOTOS: Honouring the past to support the future a foundation of new Carrier Sekani youth centre

Sk’ai Zeh Yah is also known as Children of Chiefs House

Fulfilling an ongoing legacy of teaching Indigenous youth to live enriching lives, honour their cultural history and giving them hope for the future.

These are some of the many ideas to which Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS) has built its new youth drop-in centre, which hosted tours today (Nov. 20) for members of the public as part of its official grand opening.

It’s called Sk’ai Zeh Yah, known in English as Children of Chiefs House.

The name resonates well for CSFS Director of Youth Services Amy Merritt with Friday also being National Children’s Day in Canada.

She says finally being able to provide top-quality prevention services can help break down those inaccessible barriers.

“Indigenous children and youth have not been treated well over the years in Canada, so with this new centre, we’re really honouring them and the journey they’ve been on and the journey we’re all going to be on together,” she told PrinceGeorgeMatters, noting community partners will also be fundamental moving forward.

“Those relationships are huge so that we know the best services to provide for our youth.”

Those key partnerships include Foundry, Reconnect and the RCMP, who deal with homeless transient youth on a daily basis.

Though the program is focused on after-school services, Merritt says CSFS is hoping to add to its current 18-member staff, specifically youth-care providers, to hopefully extend the drop-in centre’s hours.

“So for the youth services side for 18 and under, our programs run until 8 p.m., but primarily it’s after-school programming because we recognize that’s a time when kids leave, that’s when they were being exposed to high-risk lifestyles and gang-related activities,” she explains.

“Over the summer was a little different because we were able to provide those services outside, but with the winter coming, we’re providing smaller groups in two-hour windows. So there’s still consistency, but we can’t just put them all here together. We’ve had to be creative and flexible with COVID-19, but the most important thing is the continuation of services.”

Much like their Vanderhoof and Burns Lake counterparts, Sk’ai Zeh Yah houses elder-youth mentorship programs, continuing the passion of passed-on elders who wanted to see youth succeed.

One of them was Preston Gano, to which CSFS has named one of the new centre’s conference rooms in his honour in hopes of encouraging youth that come in to carry the torch.

Funding for Sk’ai Zeh Yah was made possible by Indigenous Services Canada and donations have come pouring in from the community as they gear up to provide a warm pspace for youth in the winter.

“Before we had ongoing funding, we really didn’t have money to provide for the program like what we do now,” says Merritt.

“So, now we have a passenger van where we can pick up kids from school, we cook dinner, we cook with them, we have a meal together, and then we provide the programming. We’ve recognized that you can’t learn without a full tummy. So we’ve taken away those barriers to make as accessible as possible to everyone. We send the kids with leftovers so they can share it with their families for when they go home, or they can have it for lunch the next day at school; we also do life-skill programming out of here as well.”

The centre also comes complete with a shower-bathroom and laundry room, which Merritt says was very essential to the design.

“Nobody wants to leave when you’ve just had a shower with your wet socks and your wet boots, so we have new socks, underwear and donations for clothing as well.”

She adds the community has brought in winter clothing for those that need it most.

Other features to Sk’ai Zeh Yah include a television and lounge area, bikes for rent with tune-up station, air-hockey and foosball tables, a quiet room, kitchen, conference room, a storage area for homeless transient youth to keep their personal belongings and an emotional-support dog named ‘Woof!’

Artwork set up in the building has been created by Clayton Gauthier, a long-time friend of Merritt and CSFS.

For more information on Sk’ai Zeh Yah, you can visit Carrier Sekani Family Services’ website.