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Surrey’s YMCA Alternative Suspension Program Helping Kids Reach Their Potential

“This is our future, these kids are our future. We need to care, and we need to help them care.”

Have you ever wondered if suspensions from school are a punishment, or if kids learn anything from being suspended?

Well, since, 2012, Surrey’s YMCA Alternative Suspension Program has provided kids with a different experience for their days away from school.

“The difference between what we do and a regular suspension is kids would just go home, sleep in, and play video games,” said Teresa Weatherby, a Primary Youth Worker for Abbotsford’s Alternative Suspension Program. “Then, they go back three days later, and nothing has changed.”

That’s why Weatherby and Surrey’s Primary Youth Worker Taylor Hamilton work to engage and challenge these kids during their time away from school, within a program that’s growing in popularity, both in B.C. and Canada.

The Alternative Suspension Program originated in Quebec back in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the program spread across Canada.

In B.C. it started in Chilliwack that year, spread to Abbotsford in 2011 before expanding to Surrey in 2012. After six full years of the program in Surrey, Hamilton and her team have now seen more than 600 students go through the program.

Weatherby notes that 80 students per year is the model for the program, but high demands mean that the program usually pushes more kids through on an annual basis. In Surrey, 659 students have gone through the program in six years.

How it Works

So, how does a kid end up in the alternative suspension program?

“When something happens, the principal calls the primary youth worker, tells us what’s going on, and they refer the kid to the program for three to five days.,” Weatherby said.

“With each student we make sure we have a minimum of three days because we have to build rapport with these kids. We must have the opportunity to find out what’s going on, so we can put some supports in place and put them back in school.”

During her time with the kids, the Primary Youth Workers look to combine school work with a healthy dose of meaningful interactions.

“The kids bring their school work with them so that they’re not falling behind. They work on that in the morning and then we run workshops in the afternoon. What that looks like is sitting down and having conversations with them, and that’s probably the most impactful part of the day.

“We talk about values. We talk about things like respect, responsibility, empathy. We talk about parents and communication, we talk about anger, peer pressure, drugs.

“They’re really super raw, open conversations, and I’m amazed by some of the stuff that comes out from these kids.”

Weatherby mentions that the main goal for these conversations is for the kids to step back and think critically about their own life.

“I like to call it the balcony view,” Weatherby said. “For them, it’s crucial to step back from the situation, look at it from a different perspective and say: ‘What’s going on? I need to make some changes, what changes do I need? Who can I go to for support?’”

Once the student’s time at the Alternative Suspension Program wraps up, Weatherby goes back to the school with the kid, the parents, the principal and a plan of action moving forward.

“For a lot of these kids, they haven’t had a lot of success in their life. It’s powerful when they sit in a meeting with an adult, usually me, who says to the parents: ‘You know what, he’s a really great kid and I really enjoyed working with them.’ For a lot of these parents, that’s the first time someone has said something super encouraging to them about their kid.”

The relationship doesn’t end there. Even though Weatherby and the other Primary Youth Workers have students coming in and out, they still make sure to go back and visit students in school six weeks after they’ve gone back. Sometimes, the students will keep in touch with the Primary Youth Workers in the following years as well.

Going Above and Beyond

A suspension from school is often seen as a punishment. However, the YMCA Alternative Suspension Program aims to make this a productive and positive learning experience for the kids.

“I tell parents, if you’re looking for a punishment for your kid, think again. Most kids who come here want to stay. It’s quiet here, they can get work done.

“I just had one kid just do 75 pages of math when he was here, and he told me that he had never done that in his whole life.”

In Surrey, the program also aims to help parents as well as the students.

“We have drivers that go to the schools to pick the kids up, which is huge because the reality is a lot of the time the parents can’t afford to take time off work to take their kids to a suspension program”

“Taylor [Hamilton] also makes grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids pretty much every day. There’s hot chocolate for them and a full deli. Lots of these kids come and they didn’t have dinner the night before, so having a bowl of oatmeal or a piece of toast is huge. A lot of these kids are from single family homes, and a lot of these parents can’t take time off to go to another meeting, again.

Aside from keeping students busy during suspensions, the Alternative Suspension Program also found a way to keep students busy during summer as well.

“This year, we used funding money to do a summer program. We took kids for two weeks and paid for their transit to go to places they would never go. We went to Grouse mountain, went kayaking, rock climbing, Stanley Park bike riding, things that these kids had never done before.”

“One of the moms told us she was worried that her kid would be playing video games all summer. Instead, he made friends during those two weeks and ended up spending time with them for the bulk of the summer.”

Adding a summer program was a great experience for all the kids involved, according to Weatherby.

“Its just about helping the kids reach their potential,” she said. “It tells them that they can succeed, they can do it.”

How donations can help

As Vice Principals who change schools in Surrey spread the word about the program, so do demands for workers and resources.

Funding for the program comes directly from the school, as the program isn’t funded nationally in Surrey.

The YMCA Alternative Suspension Program was a grant winner during the 2018 SurreyCares Grant Celebration.

“We couldn’t run the program the way we do without our outside community partners, and SurreyCares is one of them for sure. Their support of our program has been huge.”

As the program grows, however, more funding will be needed to support both day-to-day functions and extra programs.

“School district pays a fee for the whole service and our budget is broken down,” said Weatherby. “Funding helps with extra hours for the secondary Youth Workers and for providing food to the kids. Many of these kids are on Google Classroom, so we need laptops for these kids.

“Our summer program, which funding aided, was fantastic. The intrinsic bonuses we get from spending a few thousand dollars to give these kids an opportunity is huge. You think these kids hate school? Well, some of these kids will say that when school ends they feel so lonely, that they have nothing to do. We’re keeping them connected, were giving them a chance to do physical exercise, to make connections and make friends. Summer program was over $5000 for sure but the money is so well spent.

“This is our future, these kids are our future, we need to care, and we need to help them care.”

SurreyCares holds a Surrey YMCA endowment fund which supports the Tong Louie YMCA.



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