Waterloo women support Indigenous youth through Girls at Bat program

Waterloo friends and neighbours Rachel Harder and Joanna Thiessen wanted to help young women in Ontario's Indigenous communities, but they weren't sure what. Then they found out about the Toronto Blue Jays's Girls at Bat James Bay program, and everything changed.

Jays Care Foundation program connects young Indigenous women with leadership mentors

Jo Thiessen, left, and Rachel Harder are mentors are part of the Jays Care Foundation program Girls at Bat James Bay. They're empowering girls to start programs for their peers in northern Ontario Indigenous communities. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Two Waterloo women are making a difference by helping to mentor girls in remote northern Ontario Indigenous communities.

It's part of a program from the Jays Care Foundation, the charity branch of the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

But Joanna Thiessen and Rachel Harder aren't teaching young girls to play ball, which one might expect.

Instead, they're helping them organize events, everything from spa days to yoga classes, games nights to soccer baseball matches.

During their regular walks, the two had talked about how they could make a difference in Indigenous communities.

"We both were wanting to get involved somehow, in some way, but weren't really sure how," Thiessen said.

Then a childhood friend contacted Thiessen. Jules Porter is the director of programs for the Jays Care Foundation and asked if Thiessen would be interested in applying to be a mentor as part of their new Girls At Bat James Bay program.

Thiessen said yes and filled Harder in on the details.
A youth leader attending the Girls at Bat James Bay retreat in the fall of 2016 holds up her hand, painted blue and with the word 'hope' written on it. (Jays Care Foundation)

Long-term commitment

The Girls at Bat James Bay program was developed after 600 children and youth in First Nations communities west of James Bay said they had either considered or had actually attempted suicide between 2009 and 2011.

"Inspired by stories of resilience, a collective and passionate group of organizations across Canada have partnered with Jays Care Foundation in the design and implementation of the James Bay Girls At Bat program," the foundation said in an email to CBC News.

The idea of the program is to empower young women to make a difference in their communities and lead programming for their peers.

Jays Care Foundation consulted with the communities to see how they wanted the program to work, and provided a long-term commitment for funding in nine communities: Moose Cree First Nation, Taykwa Tagamou Nation, Fort Albany First Nation, Kashechewan First Nation, Wapekeka First Nation, Attawapiskat First Nation, Chapleau Cree First Nation, Wahgoshig First Nation and Peawanuck First Nation.
Waterloo's Rachel Harder, left, talks to one of the participants at the first retreat for the Jays Care Foundation program Girls at bat James Bay last fall. (Jays Care Foundation)

Community-led programs

Harder and Thiessen went to a retreat last fall and met with girls who had been chosen by their communities to lead programs for their peers.

Harder was matched with girls from Attawapiskat; Thiessen was matched with girls from Kashechewan.

During the retreat, they talked about what kind of programs the girls would like to do in their communities, how to do it, and took part in leadership activities to build the girls's confidence.

It was very much community driven, Thiessen said.

After the retreat, they kept in contact online and, last spring, both Waterloo women went to their communities to visit.

We just kept letting them know that we're here to be your mentor, be your friend and to help you gain some leadership skills and to run these programs in your community.- Rachel Harder

"I had never been to a remote First Nation community before, so it was a very new and different experience," Thiessen said of flying into Kashechewan First Nation, a community of about 2,000.

The girls took her on walking tours and wanted to show her the community. Together, she and the girls planned a few events, such as a spa day and a yoga class.

Harder went to Attawapiskat First Nation and said it was strange to go to such a remote community and still be in Ontario.

When she saw the girls she was mentoring, she said it was a great reunion.

"When we saw each other, it was great big hugs," she said.

They spent three days together planning, playing, and the girls told her more about what it's like to live in the community.

"It was a really special experience, actually, and I was so glad to be able to do it — and do it in a way where I felt like I already had a connection with these girls and it wasn't just a stranger flying in and trying to understand, but really having local girls show me around and introduce me to people," Harder said.
The girls were encouraged to come up with weekly activities for their peers. That included things like spa days to just a simple game of tag or pick-up soccer baseball. (Jays Care Foundation)

'We're here'

Now the two women are preparing to go to a second retreat, which starts Oct. 1. They'll see the girls again and take notes on how the first year of the program went, and how it can be improved.

Harder said last fall there may have been some trepidation by the girls, who have heard of other groups coming in and wanting to help, but then not staying.

She said she thinks the girls appreciate that the volunteers are in this for the long haul.

"We just kept letting them know that we're here to be your mentor, be your friend and to help you gain some leadership skills and to run these programs in your community," she said.

"What they tell us is that there hasn't been a lot for the youth to do in their community. So we really want them to be able to engage with the youth in their communities."