Aboriginal mentorship program connects kids to culture

Aboriginal preteens in Mill Woods have had more cultural support in the hallways during this school year as a peer-to-peer mentorship program aimed at cultivating cultural pride, resiliency and mental health expanded beyond the pilot project phase. From September to January in the 2012 - 2013 school year, 10 Aboriginal girls from Dan Knott, Edith Rogers and TD Baker schools in Mill Woods participated in the Pitone program, which consisted of Saturday workshops focused on teaching coping skills, cultural education and healthy self-image. The Grade 7 girls invited to participate in the program were "yellow-zone" students: students who were not yet involved in a lot of negative activity but were at a crossroads of sorts. The program, which expanded in 2013 under the title Nikaniwin, is funded by the City of Edmonton's Ounce of Prevention program and gave students a chance to participate in traditional ceremonies, connect to elders in the Aboriginal community and have a glamour day complete with new haircuts and professional photos. "We teach the kids about cultural ceremonies and build acceptance and education," said Jennifer Parenteau, Program Coordinator of Nikaniwin. The expanded program launched in February 2013 and aimed to expand the reach of Pitone by enlisting the help of Aboriginal teens who could act as a positive influence on "yellow-zone" students who were facing challenges of transitioning into Grade 7 at a new school. While the initial plan was to assign specific students to mentors, the weekend cultural events that gathered the students together created its own bonds among the youth. "We wanted to match the kids up, but it was just naturally occurring in the group," said Parenteau. "The older kids just really took on a leadership role in this group." The youth that had been through the Pitone program had met with local elders and learned how to connect with Aboriginal culture in the Edmonton area and shared this knowledge with their younger group members. "The older kids were showing the connections and empowerment and excitement of going to cultural events and the mentees saw they were excited and modeled that behaviour," she said. The students not only attended cultural events that connected them to their own roots, but travelled to other schools in the area to share education about Aboriginal culture with students of all backgrounds. "These presentations were for non-Aboriginal students," said Parenteau. "It's about building acceptance and respect for the culture." Through connecting to culture, the program aimed to help students cultivate the skills to deal with the challenges in their lives and keep in touch with the Aboriginal community supports that are available to help them through tough times. "We hope to be building coping skills," said Parenteau. "Our program was set up to help them stand on their own two feet - it's not a band-aid service." REACH Edmonton coordinates and supports the groups who access Ounce of Prevention funds from the City of Edmonton, bringing the safety and crime prevention lens to the program.