The Well Community Collective gathers and grows to help rural youth
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
The Well Community Collective is a community-driven Integrated Youth Service (IYS) initiative looking to improve the lives of rural youths across Huron, Perth, Grey and Bruce Counties.
Over the last four years, the fledgling collective has been slowly and methodically gathering community input and support for their raison d’être - the bringing together of the area’s various youth and family oriented services into a more streamlined system geared at better serving rural youth and their families. It may be a seemingly simple proposal, but, in reality, the project is a truly Herculean task with an end goal of nothing less than true and lasting social reform. Their first goal has been to facilitate collaboration between youth and community consulting teams and community stakeholders, partners and funders, with the goal of co-designing mental health, substance health and social service care pathways for rural youth. Once they began to identify specific community needs through this process, they began collectively brainstorming ways The Well could help to address service burdens and support existing community agencies. The team’s grand plan is to create a series of local hubs that will increase the safety net for young people and increase their access to a number of services in one place. The quickly-growing team already has many members working to bring this hub model to fruition. Three of those teammates, Shannon McGavin, Reba Oldridge and Patricia Smith, all came together on a video call to offer The Citizen an update on how the exciting initiative is shaping up in 2024. Missing from the interview were Christa Royal, Co-Lead of the Family and Community Advisory Council; and Teegan McGavin, Co-lead of the Youth Action Council (YAC).
Shannon, the Founder and Executive Director of The Well, put the project’s objectives simply. “Right now, we have amazing services across Huron, Perth, Grey and Bruce Counties, but there’s also a real need to help youth in navigating those systems. Youth and families have often struggled to know which door to go through, when. What we are trying to do is decrease that to one door for our youth to go through, with all necessary services co-located in one place.“
One of the issues currently faced by rural social services is a lack of organized communication. “As it is, the system can be very siloed and fragmented,” explained Shannon. “All these sites are providing great care, but they don’t always have the interoperability to communicate with each other which further contributes to barriers for local youth….We also know that youth and families, generally, are not meaningfully engaged. This issue is really important to us. Family and community advisory councils, like our Youth Action Council and the Family and Community Advisory Council, should be actually informing these services. If a service doesn’t work for you, we should offer another service that does….Youth may experience wellness differently, so for us, here at The Well it is imperative to support many versions of wellness and in doing so support youth with physical, mental and substance health as well as supports to address employment, education, community recreational services and skills and well-being services. It’s a broad gamut. We need to start looking at what really works and what really serves our youth.”
That’s where people like Oldridge come into the plan. Oldridge has been with The Well for about a year, and is currently a YAC Co-Lead. She has inside information about what life is like for rural youths in Huron and Perth Counties - until recently, she was one! “I did spend my whole upbringing in Huron County. Currently I live in Ayr, which is Waterloo Region, but that’s just until I get my Master’s Degree… for me, ‘wellness’ is so much more than just physical health. It’s complete mental, emotional and physical health; just having the resources available to you to be fully present in society. That’s kind of how I see it.”
Oldridge and the other young advisors at The Well are essential in bringing forward ideas that can help shape social programs. “Typically our meetings are just us brainstorming as a group. We mostly discuss governance, programming, locations and potential barriers that might come up,” said Oldridge. For the YAC, 2024 is all about engaging more young people from the community. “We want a diverse set of youth for the Youth Action Council, which is something we’ve struggled to achieve. Getting the word out is key. It’s been great to be able to advocate for myself… we are always looking for any youth that want to join our team, so if you’re between 12 and 25, we want to hear your voice. And we only meet bi-weekly, so it’s not even that much of a commitment!” Shannon is constantly impressed by the YAC’s output. “The YAC is instrumental in informing and advising the work of the Governance Tables as we assess new locations and move this community initiative forward - we really try to embody the saying ‘nothing about youth without youth.’ ” she explained. The YAC has many possible programming ideas for the future Youth Wellness Hubs, including everything from employment services to cooking classes to mental and sexual health support - whatever has been identified as something that can offer a sense of agency to young people.
The Well hopes to aid in creating a smoother transitional pathway for people in the process of aging out of child and youth services that are still in need of some forms of assistance, and are perhaps not ready to shift entirely over to adult services. Creating a better environment for rural LGBTQ2S+ youth is also high on The Well’s list of priorities. “We’re really focusing on creating safe spaces,” said Smith.
Oldridge added her perspective. “I think stigma is a big obstacle for young people who need support. When you don’t feel comfortable asking for that help, you’re much less likely to seek out a service for mental health or substance health.”
Now, four years into the ambitious initiative, Shannon is hopeful for the project’s future, but realistic about the length of time it takes to bring about social reform. “Transforming care doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just build a place, say ‘Ok, it’s a youth hub,’ and hope people show up. It requires collaboration and co-ordination.”
The sheer scale of that required co-ordination is daunting, but this dedicated group of change-makers is just taking things one step at a time. The Well has brought together many local youth-serving agencies from across Huron and Perth, as well as Grey and Bruce, to create two Governance tables that will continue, along with youth and communities, to guide the work of The Well. Shannon also explained that The Well is only intended to assist and augment existing health and wellness programs. “We’re not trying to replace services, we simply want to support services, and collaborate,” she explained. “This is social innovation, and it takes time. It takes time to build up trust and support, and we need the support of the community and the service providers to create long term stability.”
Smith, the Director of Family and Community Engagement, is also equal parts calm and impatient, and pragmatic when it comes to this collaborative attempt at a sea change. “It just takes time to achieve what we aim to achieve. Right now everything feels [like] it’s a perfect time for everything to fall into place, but it still takes time. That’s the frustrating part.”
All the long-term talk aside, Shannon is certain that this year will be one of rapid progress for The Well. “In 2024, we will have hubs, and I’m saying hubs, plural, in Huron and Perth Counties... we’ve got three possible locations already, and Grey [and] Bruce [Counties aren’t] far behind. We will start the Youth Wellness Hub Model in our community.” This prospect is an exhilarating one for The Well and its staff - their goal of helping young people all across Huron, Perth, Grey and Bruce Counties is beginning to really come together.
Smith summed up the energy of anticipation the collective is feeling these days. “It’s an incredible process,” she said. “To embrace all of the benefits and beautiful elements of our society that are there to help our youth be well, and to bring them all together in the way that best works for those young people - I can’t express how extraordinary it is. We’ve all seen young people struggle when they don’t have to - we want to bring all the strength in our communities together.”