One Youth at a Time
It began with a chance encounter. On his way home from a church meeting one evening in 1964, George Fernie met a young man who had been released from Toronto’s Don Jail. His family had turned their backs on him, the youth said. He had nowhere to go. He was one of many young men who found themselves isolated after they ran into trouble with the law.
George helped the youth find a place to stay and then he took the issue to his presbytery. In response, it created the Youth Rehabilitation Home of East Toronto Presbytery, which provided residential care and encouragement for young men between the ages of 16 and 18. In 1970 it was renamed Fernie House and over the next five decades its facilities and programs expanded.
Today, the newly rechristened Fernie Youth operates two residences and employs 10 community outreach workers in the Greater Toronto Area to help more than 200 young people and their families navigate the youth justice and mental health systems. They work with youth in custody centres and support them as they reintegrate into their communities, and provide care for youth who struggle with personal issues and interpersonal relationships.
“We focus on the whole well-being of the youth, which is all elements of the youth and their world,” said Patrick Reber, executive director. “They come to us in different ways from different avenues, and whether it’s mental health or child welfare or youth justice concerns that bring them to us, we seek to provide them and the world they’re going back to with the skills and resources to be successful.”
‘We did presentations at the congregations and the kids earned a living and learned a skill—learned lawn and garden skill’
It can be the little things that make a big difference. For example, getting a driver’s license can be a rite of passage. “That opportunity wasn’t often available to youth we provide service to,” he said. “So it is something we make sure occurs. If the youth should want a driver’s license, we make sure they get it. That’s funded out of our charitable donations … It’s the little things like that, the attention to detail to the quality of life for youth and their families, and to give them the practical skills they need to move forward.”
And it’s not just youth under 18 who need support. Last year, Reber’s organization and the recently founded Fernie Community Foundation launched a work program as a way of helping young people who have aged out of the youth justice system.
“We developed a lawn and garden care service last season,” he said. “We got in touch with the Presbyterian churches in the Greater Toronto Area and ended up contracted by various churches to provide their lawn and garden service throughout the season. And this brought the kids closer to the churches literally and figuratively. We did presentations at the congregations and the kids earned a living and learned a skill—learned lawn and garden skill. And two of our folks went on to secure ongoing employment as a result of that.”
This year, it will also present a new award to a young person between 18 and 25 who overcame an experience related to youth justice, mental health or child welfare. The $1,000 cash prize is named for Paul Cornish, who served as executive director for 29 years, and will be awarded at Fernie Youth’s annual general meeting in June.
“We have that one-youth-at-a- time approach,” Reber said. “That’s our mission. It’s to look at how can we partner with one youth at a time as many times as we can and help them move forward in a meaningful way.”