Imagine if you knew the work you were doing changed lives: a grade 10 boy admits to you that the conversation you two shared stopped him from taking his life; a girl informs you that because of your presentation, she was inspired to get back into sports after experiencing a physical injury that changed the way she lived; or, you received three disclosures of self-harm after a school assembly. For the speakers at YouthSpeak, these stories are no figment of their imagination; they are real.
Inspired by personal experience with her own family, Una Wright founded YouthSpeak in 2003, an organization that trains youth speakers who have lived experiences related to mental health, bullying, or addiction. Speakers are trained in leadership and public speaking skills to share their stories at conferences, school assemblies, and community groups with the aim of spreading messages of hope and teaching coping tools to encourage resilience.
“We are the conversation starters,” says Una, when asked how YouthSpeak has impacted the lives of others. Una adds, “Students feel safe sharing their stories after hearing our speakers do the same.”
Una is a firm believer in the power of lived experience and its undeniable capacity to heal. When YouthSpeak started in 2003, her son, Gavin, was excited about the initiative. He was one of the first speakers before tragically passing away in a weather-related car accident. In September 2014, her other son living with bipolar took his own life. This event gave her renewed motivation to share her story. Having gone through many challenges with her family surrounding mental health, Una wishes to give a voice and meaning to the challenging story her own family faces by equipping others with the necessary tools to discuss and cope with mental health.
YouthSpeak has changed over the years; the youth speakers are now the ones facilitating the assemblies on their own as they are equipped with the suitable training to generate conversation. Una continues to speak to parent groups and hopes that by adopting the train-the-trainer model (several speakers are already in the youth trainer position), the bigger vision of taking YouthSpeak Canada-wide will be attained.
To date, YouthSpeak has reached over 130,000 individuals and is well on its way to surpassing this year’s goal of reaching 24,000. Despite its success, one of the biggest challenges YouthSpeak faces is sustainable funding. Funding ensures program costs remain low for participants and provides speakers with ongoing training, support, and mentorship throughout their journey of healing.
Fundraising is always a priority for YouthSpeak; check out their Open Mic Night. Other upcoming events include their annual AWAKE youth drug awareness conference on March 5th, 2015 and on February 25th, 2015 “Healthy minds, healthy teens” (a parenting forum for youth mental health in collaboration with parent councils in York Region). Join the conversation today by checking out the YouthSpeak website to see how you can get involved and follow their social media accounts for updates.