'I can be myself': Youth FASD support program expands in Yellowknife
4Y program has expanded from three to 12 participants, and there's a waiting list
Lois Anderson is doing things her parents say they never expected.
The 17-year-old Yellowknife teen has taken on everything from learning about improv acting to taking part in a creative writing workshop at the NorthWords Writers Festival.
Anderson is among a growing group of young people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) who are gaining independence through the 4Y program by helping them transition into adulthood.
Created last June, the program has grown from three to 12 participants, and there's a waiting list, according to Foster Family Coalition staff.
"I just feel like I can be myself," said Anderson, who joined the group last September. "I don't have to hide anything.... It just taught me to be a little bit more independent."
The Foster Family Coalition of the N.W.T. launched the 4Y program last June after foster families identified gaps in services for young people with FASD who are transitioning out of foster care.
The program pairs each youth with a navigator or coach to learn life skills and reach personal goals — anything the youth is interested in, like getting a job, saving up for something they desire, or getting ready for post-secondary education and living on their own.
Funding from the Child's First Initiative last November helped the program gain a youth space and fund five part-time staff. The program is now open to any youth with FASD in Yellowknife.
"It's really cool to see like when we do group activities, like all of the relationships that have been built between the participants," said Korry Garvey, a former 4Y coordinator who says the program has turned into a community.
Pandemic leads to challenges
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the program held weekly improv acting nights, music workshops and pizza nights. The youth collaborated on a film for the Dead North Film Festival this year.
"We're still talking about what FASD means ... how it affects them uniquely and how we can work with their strengths that come with a disability," said Garvey.
Since the pandemic, most of the socialization and support has gone online. Staff still connect with youth daily on the phone or by videoconference, and go for walks or runs with them.
It's not ideal, program staff say, but they are making it work.
For Jordan Epelon, one of the first 4Y participants, this community is making getting through the pandemic easier.
"It's definitely nice to have people to go to when you're [feeling] down," said Epelon, who says the pandemic has led to struggles gaining employment. Daily talks with his navigator help, he said.
"It's great to have that support, to know that you're not much different than everybody else in the world," he said.
The Foster Family Coalition plans to resume its weekly gatherings when the territory's health officials say it's safe. Eventually, they're hoping to see the program expanded outside Yellowknife.
For Lois Anderson's parents, Erin and Kevin Anderson, the program has been a game changer for their family.
"I immediately saw a difference in her," Erin Anderson said. She said that before 4Y, their daughter was reluctant to do activities without her family or outside of school.
Now, she's preparing to go to college in the fall near Calgary, she said, crediting the program for their daughter's growing confidence.
"We're just seeing how far she can go and this level of independence.... It really gives me a lot of hope for her future."