by Michael Whittaker
Longtime Merrickville resident Les Voalkes was presented the Meritorious Service Medal by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, at Rideau Hall, on Friday, June 23 for his commitment to Youth Centres Canada.
“Founder and former executive director of Youth Centres Canada, Les Voakes has worked to extend the outreach of youth centres,” said the Governor General. “In addition to fostering self-esteem among young people, these centres give them the opportunity to gain the tools they need to grow into responsible adults capable of reaching their full potential.”
“To receive this award was a great honour, which I view as recognition for all the communities involved in establishing youth centres,” said Mr. Voalkes. “Youth Centres Canada would never have happened without the youth and adult allies that were fearless and determined to start something new and included a truly inclusive centre for their community.” Mr. Voalkes has more 35 years’ experience in project/program development and implementation concerning socio-cultural issues affecting youth, street people, and marginalized social groups.
The Meritorious Service Decorations recognize the extraordinary people who make Canada proud. Their acts are often innovative, set an example or model for others to follow, or respond to a particular challenge faced by a community. Les Voalkes is among the best candidates who inspire others through their motivation to find solutions to specific and pressing needs or provide an important service to Canadians, locally and nationally. Having lived in Merrickville for more than 35 years, Mr. Voalkes now lives in Arnprior.
The first youth centre was opened in Smiths Falls and one in Prescott a few weeks later. These were the first two youth centres to start with the outlined requirements written in Les Voakes’ Streetworker Report, a study done in Smiths Falls 1992.
Voakes, with the support of TriCounty Addictions Service, developed a project plan that was submitted in the middle of the Great Ice Storm 1994, and was funded by Health Canada as part of its National Drug Strategy in the spring of that year. The project was very straightforward, the Town Youth Participation Strategies (TYPS) project was to aid and assist at least five communities in Lanark, Leeds, and Grenville to assist and establish youth centres based on what was learned from the Smiths Falls project.
Therefore, Brockville, Kemptville, Perth, Almonte, and Prescott each agreed to be a part of the project and for the next three years teams of youth and adult allies regularly met on weekends to learn and share from each other what worked best, what skills and resources were needed to keep a youth centre operating, and contributed to establishing the framework which eventually became the mission statements, policy and procedures, and best practices for successful youth centres.
An amazing amount of work and volunteering was contributed by so many youth and adult allies from each of the communities. Word of their successes got out to more communities in the area and more groups asked to be a part of the workshops and training days. By the end of the project, instead of six youth centres in the area, there were eleven centres and three special programs operating through local community sponsor agencies.
“I recommended the best means to accomplish any meaningful evaluation was to have every youth centre send a delegation of youth and adult allies to a conference where we would discuss what was being done, what results had they documented or experienced, what were the opinions of local stakeholders, and most importantly what did the youth think about youth centres and their futures,” said Mr. Voalkes.
The first TYPS conference was held in Smiths Falls with more than 68 distinct communities represented. Along with the overall evaluation tools that were set up to be uniquely suited for youth, the group also received special training and information resources on a number of issues that were being found in almost every community (particularly youth mental health, suicide, and homelessness). Many important points and recommendations were presented, discussed, and voted on by everyone.
The important resolution was that the youth centres felt the TYPS program was too important and helpful in supporting the youth centres with information, resources, and in maintaining a network of youth centres – to let end when the project funding ran out – which was to be a couple of days after the conference. The youth centres wanted TYPS to become an incorporated, non-profit organization dedicated to assist youth centres and youth initiatives and they asked Les to lead this new initiative.
The Ontario Trillium Foundation came to the rescue, provided funding to establish TYPS as an incorporated non-profit and maintain the network and services for youth centres in Ontario. Before the new organization was fully formed, groups from across Canada began to open and ask for assistance and information from TYPS. Therefore, it was decided to incorporate TYPS through Industry Canada and be available across Canada.