Operation Runaway

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As the provincial government searches for a service provider to help vulnerable youth in Regina, it might be one needs look no farther than Saskatoon to see what works.

And for Don Meikle, executive director of Saskatoon’s EGADZ, the solution to the problem of runaway youth lies solidly with youth themselves.

“I think the proof is in the pudding …,” he said this week. “When kids come into the program, what I can tell you is their runs are reduced by over 80 per cent.”

The EGADZ-run program in question is Operation Runaway, which launched in 2017. Since then, it’s helped numerous kids — and the program does it by empowering rather than preaching.

Meikle said he’d love to see a program like Operation Runaway go province-wide.

“What we’re doing is having huge successes,” he said. “I’d love to share our knowledge and what we’re doing with the rest of the province, the rest of the country.”

Earlier this month, the province issued a negotiated request for proposal (RFP) for Regina, asking interested service providers to apply with proposals for support services to “youth absent from MSS care.”

“We have identified a need in the Regina-area for a service for hard-to-serve youth who have difficulties remaining connected to safe living arrangements, and end up in high-risk and vulnerable situations,” Mitch Tremblay, executive director of Community Services with Child and Family Programs at the Ministry of Social Services, said in an emailed statement.

“This can include anything from the instability that comes from couch-surfing, to being exposed to others who may look to victimize them, and increase their risk of being exposed to violence, substance abuse and gang activity.”

The RFP deadline is March 16. Tremblay said the intent is to find a provider that will work as part of a team to “engage, connect and build relationships with young people, and empower them to make positive changes in their own lives.”

Meikle said empowerment is key. Often, kids who run away feel powerless in their lives, many of them coming from dysfunctional settings over which they have no control. He said many have described homes and placements with numerous rules, which can be a massive challenge for kids who are struggling — particularly those with mental health, addictions or cognitive challenges.

Meikle — an outreach worker since 1993 and someone who himself once endured a dysfunctional home — said he’s been rejuvenated by the way Operation Runaway, and subsequent youth-centred programming, has worked out.

One of the problems with traditional programming for youth is that it’s often missing one very important facet: input from those it’s supposed to be helping, he said.

“It’s not a hard sell to ask young people what they need,” Meikle said.

When EGADZ was successful with its own RFP a few years ago, it made one important move, which was to empower the kids with setting rules for themselves and each other and to explain what it was they needed from the program. Although they are guided by adults, youth involved in Operation Runaway have kept themselves and each other on track by adhering to the program they’ve had such a hand in developing.

The rules they came up with are far from slack: no drugs or alcohol; no violence, discrimination or bullying; respect for themselves, each other and others’ property; no gang recruitment or colours; and rooms checks to ensure participants are following the rules.

The program doesn’t fix the outside world, but Meikle said it’s given youth the tools to “function within a dysfunctional family.” While adults are always there to provide guidance and support, kids not only actively participate in discussions, they’re committee members and coaches for other youth in the program as well.

Meikle said studying outcomes of Operation Runaway is crucial to gauging its success and, to date, those outcomes have been positive. Not only are youth running away less, they’re seeing success in other aspects of their lives — areas that mean the difference between short-term gains and long-term change.

“I swear to God, I’m not bragging, but we’ve been really super-successful with young people and young adults in getting them off the system, getting them jobs, getting employment, getting them back to school,” he said. “But it’s kind of like success breeds success.”

He said all their programs now have youth committees attached to them, further allowing young people a role in deciding their own circumstances. A second program called Ground Zero is close to being launched, and it will provide emergency housing for youth — both short-term and, in some cases, long-term. As with Operation Runaway, youth have been involved in developing the project.

“We don’t give young people enough credit, and they do take this kind of stuff very serious and they want to see a change …,” Meikle said. “If we don’t give them the chance, or we don’t trust them to make good decisions, then it’s never going to change.”

He said the ministry has been receptive to EGADZ’s approach, and he’s hopeful other locations in the province will follow suit.

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