When Rebecca Smith began volunteering as an eight-year-old, she knew she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. Today, she's doing just that as a child and youth worker (CYW) apprentice.
"I hope to have a positive impact on the children I'm working with, the same way some of my teachers impacted me, and continue to impact me, years after I was in their classrooms," Smith says.
"I'm lucky to be able to work with people who have so much experience with children," says child and youth worker apprentice Rebecca Smith.
The 19-year-old has helped run breakfast clubs, student programs aimed at ending violence and volunteers at the Toronto Distress Centre. As a Grade 12 student at Victoria Park Secondary School in Toronto, Smith signed on with the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) to become a CYW.
"I always wanted to be a teacher," she says. "I noticed that I'm good with people and am good at observing, so I thought I could use those skills as a counsellor."
OYAP is a school-work transition program that allows students to begin training in a skilled trade while they're still in high school. Students receive co-operative education credits through placement in an apprenticeship occupation while completing their diploma. The hours they work on the job are put towards journeyperson certification.
Smith is now taking the government-funded CYW apprenticeship program at Centennial College, where she attends night school. As a CYW, she will provide treatment to children and adolescents (and their families) who are experiencing emotional, psychological and psychiatric problems and may be behaviourally troubled. She may work in a variety of settings, including schools, community-based agencies and residential settings.
Smith works full time at The Douglas Academy in Toronto, a private school for students with special learning needs.
"I'm lucky to be able to work with people who have so much experience with children," she says. "I'm getting valuable experience and am able to reflect on that at college."
The experience is a rewarding one and could provide a solid foundation for Smith if she chooses to become a teacher. "Letting the kids know you're there for them is the biggest thing you can do for them, whether or not you help reroute their behaviour."
OYAP has allowed Smith to fast track her career. "It smoothed the transition from school to workplace for Rebecca and has opened up opportunities in terms of job offers and pay scale," says Pat Buchanan, OYAP co-ordinator for the Toronto District School Board.
"These students are working extra hard because they're earning high school credits and are starting to earn college credits as part of their apprenticeship," Buchanan says. "They can see that it is an opportunity."
Smith has earned rave reviews from her employer. "Her approach to work is a very mature one," says Colleen Bacon, founder and director of The Douglas Academy. "She's very much a self-starter. She's more than willing to ask for guidance and then she goes out and follows through."
Bacon believes strongly in the value of work placements. "Hands-on learning is totally appropriate. You have to teach them and expose them to things...They have an opportunity to analyze what worked and what didn't and why. They begin to take ownership of it.
"Employers owe these students time, mentoring and nurturing," says Bacon. "These are the people of the future."
(Linda White is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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