'Our job is to reignite those passions': Fort Smith youth treatment centre to get reboot

With SHIFT taking over, youth will get the chance to learn and grow through sports, art therapy and various on-the-land activities.

Trailcross Youth Treatment Centre in Fort Smith to re-open under new management in January

Youth who go through programming with SHIFT learn how to handle challenging situations by engaging in activities like this climbing wall. (Submitted by SHIFT)

Andrew Middleton can't remember the teen's name, but can recall exactly what he shouted after learning how to roll a kayak.

"He came out of the water and he screamed, 'Sweet nectar!' as loud as he could," said Middleton.

He's the CEO of SHIFT, the organization set to take over Fort Smith's Trailcross Youth Treatment Centre in the N.W.T. community.

"I'll never forget that ... he jumped in the air and off he went, back to the crew and all he wanted to do was tell everyone that he'd just done this."

Middleton was 22 years old when he experienced this "awesome moment" with the young man. Many years have passed and he still says creating moments like these is his philosophy for youth education and therapy.

Children from across the N.W.T. who experience social, emotional and behavioural issues have been receiving treatment and therapy from Trailcross since the 1970s. An Alberta-based organization called Wood's Homes ran it for 10 years before declining to renew its contract this year.

[We] allow youth the opportunity ... to reframe their experiences as strengths, not as deficits.- Andrew Middleton, CEO of SHIFT

Now, with SHIFT taking over, youth will get the chance to learn and grow through sports, art therapy and various on-the-land activities.

SHIFT has signed a contract to operate the facility for three years for $1.43 million annually. There is an option to renew for two years after that.

"[We] allow youth the opportunity to see the skills that they have and to reframe their experiences as strengths, not as deficits," said Middleton.

"So there is a lot of examining what you can do, not what you can't … Often kids that come into the care of the ministry or find themselves in not-so-favourable situations … tend to forget that. So our job is to reignite those passions."

Facility to get upgrades

SHIFT has been around for 15 years, including five years in Nunavut. It still operates in Iqaluit, and previously ran programming in Cambridge Bay.

In northern communities SHIFT hires a person called a community connector, who brings in elders, artists, hunters and others to teach traditional skills and share stories. For example, the community connector in Cambridge Bay reached out to the local hunters and trappers organization to give youth the chance to hunt.

"We had one young man that we worked with who actually shot his first goose and took it to his mom," said Middleton. "That was a really proud moment for her."

Trailcross's eight beds have been empty since the final three youth cycled out on Oct. 31. Now, the facility is receiving a number of minor upgrades, according to Phyllis Mawdsley, chief operating officer of the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority Fort Smith region.

"This is a time when we have an opportunity to paint, to maybe lay new flooring," she said. "Those types of infrastructure as well as … making sure all of the furniture is in good shape."

SHIFT is in the process of filling approximately 15 full-time positions in Fort Smith and aims to start accepting youth in the first weeks of January.