'They want a place to belong': Mill Woods community members want a youth centre

Several organizations offer programs to youth in the Mill Woods area, but many say there needs to be a one-stop-shop for youth to come together in the southeast area.

A dedicated space could help some teens stay out of trouble, youth workers say

Akon Uquak and her son, Garang, 14 and daughter Akoul, 16, at their home in Mill Woods. Garang said his parents encouraged him to continue in school and play sports to keep out of trouble. (Stephanie Dubois/CBC Edmonton)

CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library for the week of Sept. 10-14. We'll be exploring stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities, and will be broadcasting live from the library on Sept. 14. Have a story to pitch? Come say hi!

A group of volunteers in 2005 wanted to build a youth centre in Mill Woods and more than a decade later they're still waiting. 

At the time, the Mill Woods President Council formed a committee, and members spoke with government officials and community members to gauge the interest of the area.

"We made great progress on what a youth centre would look like and more specifically, how it would serve the needs of the youth in the city," said Ron Kuban, the youth centre committee chair at the time.

A potential location for a dedicated youth space was considered. A year later, the Mill Woods Soccer Association organized the world's largest soccer game as a fundraiser to support the youth centre.

The event raised $65,000, of which roughly $25,000 was used for an engineering study for the youth centre, said Kuban.

Then, the project came to a halt.

"The plans fell through for a number of reasons, mostly city driven," said Vernon LeMoignan, president of the Mill Woods Soccer Association.

Kuban said there was pressure from the government to change the plans from a youth centre to a seniors centre in 2008.

Months went by as Kuban watched the focus wane on the youth centre.

"It was frustrating," he said.

A decade later, the remaining funds for the youth centre remain in a Mill Woods President Council bank account, said LeMoignan.

The Mill Woods Soccer Association has asked for the money they helped raised be given back to their association if it is not going to be used for a youth centre, he said. Discussions with the two groups are ongoing, he added.

Demand continues

But the demand for a dedicated youth space has not gone away.

Garang Uquak, 14, was always told by his parents to focus on school and stay out of trouble.

But he knows of other teens in Mill Woods who haven't always received the support they needed.

There has to be places where people can have fun.- Garang Uquak

"I think if there was more youth centres around Mill Woods, it would be better for teens to realize that the stuff they're doing is not good," he said.

"There has to be places where people can have fun but have fun in ways that are not breaking the law."

Several organizations offer programs to youth in the Mill Woods area, but many say there needs to be a one-stop-shop for youth to come together in the southeast area.

The FOUNDATION Youth Centre in the Milbourne area of Mill Woods is one of the organizations offering youth programming.

The FOUNDATION Youth Centre in Milbourne offers drop-in programs for kids. (Youth Unlimited)

The centre's staff works with marginalized youth in Milbourne by offering them food, advice and other programs, said manager Andrew Hansen.

He said some of their youth come from lower income families and can sometimes get involved with criminal activity.

But with their youth centre, they encourage them to realize their worth.

"We try to come in and not just to fill their time. It's about genuinely giving them positive adult mentors in their lives," said Hansen.

But sometimes the youth in Mill Woods, like anywhere in the city, get involved with illegal activity, said youth workers.

Edmonton Police (EPS) Cst. Francis Capinding and Cst. Jonathan Compton, the beat officers in the Mill Woods Town Centre area, try to work with youth and their families to steer them in the right direction.

EPS brought in a program in 2012 that focused on getting police to get to know young people between the ages of 14 and 24 loitering and crime at the time. 

Capinding and Compton are now part of a support network in Mill Woods that tries to keep youth out of trouble. 

"I don't think the youth here are unique. I think they want a place to belong. They really want to belong to something," Compton said.

All hopes are not lost for a community place for tweens and teens in Mill Woods.

Kuban said there's still a desire in the community for a youth centre that offers a variety of programs. Hansen agrees.

"When you're dealing with marginalized kids, you absolutely need to put focus and care and the right people in place to steer them in the right direction," Hansen said. "It absolutely needs to be done."