Aboriginal mentorship program inspires students

Aboriginal preteens in Mill Woods have more cultural supports in the hallways during this school year, as a peer-to-peer mentorship program aimed at cultivating cultural pride, resiliency and mental health expands beyond the pilot-project phase. From September to January during the last 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 involved in a lot of negative activity yet but were at a crossroads of sorts. The program, which is expanding under the title Nikaniwin, is supported by REACH Edmonton 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. While supporting high-risk students is important, Parenteau says there is high value in targeting "yellow-zone" students as a preventative measure, before they become high-risk and begin committing serious crimes. Launching February 23, Nikaniwin will expand the reach of the Pitone program by enlisting the help of Aboriginal teens who can act as a positive influence on "yellow-zone" students who are facing the challenges of transitioning into Grade 7 at a new school. The mentors will take two students under their wings, offering a role model and a friendly face in the hallways during the week. All mentors and mentees from the three participating schools will meet every second Saturday for workshops similar to those held the previous school year by Pitone. "In Aboriginal culture, mentorship is the way we learn," said Parenteau. "I have seen some amazing turnarounds, I have to say." Following the program, students were asked to evaluate how it changed their outlook and their self-image, reporting unanimous positive results. "When I was new to Dan Knott and Pitone I was like a dead flower. I was shy to blossom into a full-grown flower," said one student. "After, I was full of knowledge with First Nation history, what is good and bad to do in life. I came to life!" Parenteau said she can relate to the students in the program, as she also struggled as an Aboriginal student. "Growing up for me, it was a struggle," she said. As a high school student she was responsible for feeding and clothing her younger siblings, getting them to school and working to put food on the table. "Teachers would say things like 'oh, I understand how you feel,' and I would think 'No, you have no idea'," she said. Parenteau said a program like this would have been a great support to her as a struggling student, as it builds the relationships in the community and the sense-of-self to fall back on during tough times. While a mentorship program was not available to her as a teen, the access she did have to cultural knowledge was a lifeline. "Aboriginal culture is a healing culture and a coping culture," she said. "There is a strong focus on mental health. My culture was something I could fall back on. It gave me the skills to cope emotionally, spiritually and physically. It gave me a sense of belonging." Looking back, Parenteau believes that having positive, Aboriginal role models in her life would have made a difference. "In high school I never really had the opportunity to do my best," she said. "I was just like these kids we are engaging. Teachers would tell me, 'you can do anything', but none of them were Aboriginal so I thought 'yeah, right.' Even in my first year of university I didn't really feel like I belonged." Since graduating with honours and a degree in Psychology, Parenteau has dedicated herself to connecting with and supporting Aboriginal students. "I've been there before," she said. "Not every kid can be engaged the same way. But by connecting them with their culture you're giving them the tools to change when they're ready." This year, the program will work with 12 mentors and 24 mentees, and will run from February to the end of the school year. "We're trying to build a program that encompasses prevention rather than intervention. Prevention is a much stronger tool," she said. Beyond just affecting individual students, Parenteau has seen the program connect parents with their cultural roots. "It's been an amazing experience. We've seen whole families attend the sweat lodges, with parents and younger siblings learning about the ceremonies," she said. "We started out with about 60 people attending events to 200 people, and some who are not even involved in the program but just want to connect to their cultural roots." By bringing together students and families from different schools and neighbourhoods, the program is building a stronger Aboriginal community in Mill Woods, starting with these students. "We're giving them the tools to be healthy, active citizens," said Parenteau. "The cost of this program is such a small price to pay for avoiding the need for intervention later."