Bradley Balkaran, Musa Dolley and Ali Mussa can’t help identifying weeds everywhere they go since they started working at Earthscape, a landscaping company based in Wallenstein.
“Every time I walk around or go home, there’s a weed I remember,” Dolley said. “I learned a lot about trees, soil mulch, types of trees. My eyes attach to buckthorn everywhere I go.”
Balkaran, Dolley and Mussa connected with Earthscape through an organization in Waterloo called Adventure 4 Change. Balkaran and Dolley graduated from high school this year, and Mussa has one year left.
Adventure 4 Change is an organization for youth and families in neighbourhoods in the north Waterloo area near Albert Street. “It’s like another home for the community,” said Balkaran. “A place that gives everyone a chance to feel like they’re wanted somewhere.”
Volunteers and staff at Adventure 4 Change run many programs including after school programs, youth and leadership groups, and even groups for the area’s mothers, among others. The Genesis Program is to help teenagers and youth find meaningful jobs and mentorship that will help them launch their careers and lives.
“There are barriers to finding work that come up,” said Josh Brown, the organization’s youth program director.
While everyone faces the same barriers, many of the young people Brown works with don’t have the social capital needed in the local job market.
“I know a couple of them currently that have gone and applied to 30, 40 different places and not heard back from anyone. And maybe that’s because their résumés don’t look good. Maybe that’s because they don’t call back right away after or whatnot. So we do try to teach folks how to do that,” he explained.
“Sometimes, you know, they just don’t know the right things to say or they don’t know the right people to talk to.
“We just find when we come together a lot of good things happen. It’s a little bit of teaching, it’s a bit of guiding and coaching, but a lot of just building good relationships that lead to good outcomes,” he said.
Brown says the program is meant to, “encourage guys to get really good work experience, but in the context of mentorship. So, Mark (Schwarz), if you get to know him a little bit there, you’ll notice that he’s not just about giving guys jobs, but he’s about mentoring guys. He’s about helping guys develop in life-building character, being men with strong values.
“And so, what we find is that guys will go work with Mark and be busy and be active and be making money and working hard, but they’re also becoming good men.”
Mark Schwarz is one of the founders of Earthscape. He knows the founder of Adventure 4 Change and started hiring people through the organization about four years ago, he said. The program has its ups and downs.
“Things don’t always work because they don’t have any construction experience,” Schwarz said.
He said some of the downsides involved damage to equipment or even a car, but adds the outcomes are worth it.
Funding to pay the Adventure 4 Change youth comes from a variety of sources, including the Canada Summer Jobs grant, he said.
Schwarz encourages other companies to get involved.
“Ideally, I would like to get other construction people interested enough that they would do the same thing. That would be a real plus,” he said, noting there are likely many people in the area, perhaps retired or semi-retired, who have businesses and skills similar to his that might be put to use helping young people develop new skills.
This year, Schwarz has Balkaran, Dolley and Mussa working on Earthscape projects and in the Elmira Nature Reserve.
Dolley estimates he, Balkaran and Mussa have planted about 2,000 trees at the nature reserve. They spend their time maintaining the trees, sheltering and zip tying them, mulching, installing irrigation lines and tackling buckthorn, among other tasks.
“I enjoy it,” said Dolley. “Being from the city you don’t get to do things like this.”
Trees are a lot of work, says Balkaran. “You don’t really appreciate them until you start putting in the work.
“The people at Adventure 4 Change are trustworthy and I trust them, so they told me it was a good place to work and I trusted them,” said Balkaran.
Brown says Adventure 4 Change is constantly looking for more employers to get involved with the program. He says the organization works with about 130 teenagers and youth, and at any given time, 30 to 50 are typically looking for work.
“We have to cut off how many people we can take on because of the number of employers and spots that we have available,” he said.
Adventure 4 Change started almost 20 years ago with a few neighbours coming together to help their neighbourhood. Brown says they approached Cedarbrae Public School staff asking what was needed, and then started an after school program. After running many after school programs for kids in elementary school, they also began working with teens. Now, they run many different programs for kids, teens and families throughout the week and over the summer.
“What we’re trying to do here is really important,” he said. “Can we get guys and girls the experiences that a lot of folks end up having here? Like having a good work experience, growing a network and really feeling a part of your community, a part of your world.”
He says the experience of working in the program gives participants “an avenue to get out of some of the situations that they’re in, and gives them a lot of hope for the future.”