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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Youth Force
OYAP, student built for each other

By Aunie Edwards
Special to The Toronto Sun

The phrase "youth is wasted on the young" has no merit in the world of Dawn Birchall. A savvy teen with well-defined goals, Birchall is preparing for her college debut as she pursues her long-time dream of becoming a carpenter.

Poised to graduate from Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, Birchall has long been surrounded by drama school productions. "I started set design in Grade 10 and I've been enjoying it ever since," Birchall says. "The creative possibilities are endless, the work is great -- I love everything about it."

With her goals set on carpentry, Birchall became a registered member of the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP). Initiated and funded by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, OYAP provides a head start for high school students who train in the skilled trades through apprenticeships with community businesses.

OYAP's well-structured agenda for co-operative education at the college level makes it a perfect match for Birchall.

"Dawn really wants this, and OYAP is an excellent vehicle to help her," says Toby Milian, co-op teacher at Rosedale Heights. "While Dawn earns high school credits, she is also accumulating valuable hours towards her apprenticeship and will have mastered many skills before she even starts college."

Through OYAP, Birchall earned an apprenticeship at Tarragon Theatre where she is enhancing her high school exposure to scenic carpentry.

"Tarragon is the most amazing environment. I am having a fantastic experience and I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to work here," Birchall says.

Milian has been impressed by Birchall's enthusiasm.
OYAP student Dawn Birchall (above left, and above) is learning the fundamentals of carpentry at Tarragon Theatre under head carpenter Ian Chappell.

"Dawn started at Tarragon in the fall of 2002 and she's been smiling ever since," Milian says. "She's made a solid commitment to her workplace and the job skills she's learning now will be an asset wherever she goes."

Kristen Van Alphen is the outreach co-ordinator at Tarragon Theatres, and agrees OYAP and Birchall are an unbeatable combination.

"OYAP is a realistic strategy designed to share a wealth of skills. The ministry seems to recognize the challenges that can deter kids and they've addressed them with a very smart plan," Van Alphen says. "When you expose such a plan to a motivated learner like Dawn, you get great results."

But even a motivated learner needs a good teacher. Enter Ian Chappell, head carpenter at Tarragon Theatre.

"Ian's rapport with Dawn is remarkable. She's a talented student who wants to learn and that raises the bar for Ian, who really enjoys teaching," Van Alphen says. "It's a win-win situation for both of them."

Birchall, who views Chappell as a mentor, is quick to agree: "Ian is helping me prepare for college while he supervises my carpentry -- he's even helping me with my ideas for a set design at Rosedale. I'm having an amazing time and Ian deserves so much credit."

Exceptional though her placement is, Birchall knows she'll need to co-op at a different workplace after June to further expand her skills.

"We can teach Dawn the vocabulary, teach her to use the required math and how to use the tools well. She can apply all of these things to standard carpentry. But set pieces, for instance, only need to last about two months -- she needs some other fundamentals that we can't cover here," Van Alphen explains.

To achieve certification in carpentry, Birchall must also complete three 8 week college courses. OYAP tracks her hours, sets out a detailed roadmap in the form of a book of required skills that she must master and subsidizes her college training. With a well-considered government resource by her side, Dawn Birchall is wasting nothing as she builds her promising future.

(Aunie Edwards ( is a Guelph-based freelance writer.)

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