Virtual mentoring project helping South Asian youth navigate mental health issues in Calgary

A pilot project in Calgary is matching kids from the South Asian community with mentors, including some who’ve overcome the same issues and struggles.

Adult mentors matched with kids to improve their well-being

Gurpreet Lail with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area says there was a huge need for a mentoring program for youth in the South Asian community. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

A pilot project in Calgary is matching kids from the South Asian community with mentors, including some who've faced and overcome some of the same issues and struggles.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area has joined forces with Punjabi Resilience and Empowerment in Mental Health (PREM) to create the virtual mentoring pilot project. 

Nearly a dozen young adult mentors from PREM will be paired for 10 weeks with children and youth referred from Khalsa School Calgary and the South Asian community.

"We saw a need for social mentorship," said Steeven Toor, president & co-founder of PREM. 

"We wanted to provide South Asian youth with a safe space where they could have someone that isn't family or in their friends' circle, but a positive mentor they can lean on," he said.

Toor says they're using South Asian mentors who've had similar experiences and challenges growing up.

"Someone who's been through northeast schools, someone who also wears a turban maybe. They might be facing bullying or challenges, and having a shared lived experience — that can be very valuable," said Toor.

Toor says it can be tough for kids to share mental health struggles with their parents and siblings, especially in the South Asian community where different cultural norms and stigmas exist.

"It's a niche program we wanted to try out," said Gurpreet Lail, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area. 

"Mental health is not something that's talked about in the South Asian community," said Lail. "And we haven't even seen the effects of COVID yet. We have no idea yet what's that going to look like."

She says concentrating on one community and using people who are on the ground and in the community means a more valuable experience for the kids taking part.

"PREM actually brought cultural awareness to our program. They made us aware of some cultural sensitivities that even we didn't even know about," said Lail.

Lail says the mentoring program is typically for kids who face adversity in some form and are looking for someone to help them with coping mechanisms and resiliency in order to become successful adults.

Lail says a year of mentorship can lead to real differences.

She says the program uses brain science to measure success, looking at the progress kids have made during their time in the program.

Lail says kids can join at any time, year round.