On a Saturday night in Lake Cowichan options are limited for teenagers seeking a place to hang out with friends. However, one group from Duncan is seeking to change that and has launched what amounts to a weekly youth centre for people in Grades 7 to 12.
The project is an initiative of the Duncan United Church, although its organizers emphasize there is no religious component to the programming and they are not concerned with the religious identities of participants.
“There’s other youth drop-ins that are connected and affiliated with a certain church denomination but with us it’s just bringing anybody with any different types of backgrounds,” said Sarah Prestwich, a youth leader with Duncan United Church and one of the project’s organizers.
“When I was in high school there was a mall around, but we especially wanted a space or a time to get together, do community projects, to talk and just be youth and teenagers, and there wasn’t that kind of space … I really want to give these kids a space.”
According to Keith Simmonds, minister at Duncan United Church, funding for the project comes from the sale of a church building when the United Church closed its ministry in Lake Cowichan three years ago.
“They asked that when their building was sold some of the money that was realized from the sale of that building would stay in Lake Cowichan to be used for youth in Lake Cowichan. And that’s pretty much where they left it,” he said, noting there were no conditions related to Christianity or trying to convert youth.
“They just wanted some programming for youth in Lake Cowichan, they saw that as a need, and they asked that $100,000 from the sale of their church be set aside for that purpose.”
Over the past year Simmonds and several colleagues from the church in Duncan met with various people in Lake Cowichan, from the staff at Cowichan Lake Community Services to the principal of Lake Cowichan School to the Lake Cowichan Christian Fellowship, which already has its own youth group.
“We didn’t want to duplicate what they were doing and we didn’t want them to feel like we are trying to come in and maybe raid their youth or something,” said Simmonds.
What he heard repeatedly was that youth in the area wanted a safe place to hang out and be themselves.
It offers a space to host music and open mic nights, board game cafés or discussion groups. Simmonds said the group is flexible and available activities will depend on the interests of the teens who come.
Both he and Prestwich emphasized the safe space aspect of the project.
“It [means] you are welcome wherever you come from,” said Prestwich. “You have a voice. You are safe here, you have friends who love you. You can be who you are truly and not be judged.”
Simmonds echoed these sentiments, noting similar United Church youth groups, including the one in Duncan, draw on a wide range of young people.
“Maybe a third to half the kids come from your church congregation and the rest come from the community,” he said. “They’re friends of friends. They’re kids looking for a safe place. They’re kids whose gender identification or sexual orientation has maybe resulted in some alienation.”
The youth group is held Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the church hall in St. Christopher’s and St. Aidan’s Anglican Church.
The project launched March 5.