Deserae Wycotte of the Williams Lake Indian Band, a First Nation community in British Columbia, is on a mission. “I’ve known these kids since they were babies,” she says, reflecting on the children and teens she mentors every day at the Elizabeth Grouse Gymnasium, where she works as an after-school program coordinator.
“My goal is to instill an educational interest in youth at a young age, so they can keep that hunger in education,” she explains, pointing out that her community covers the cost of a college education. “But unfortunately, today many high school graduates still don’t see college as an option and never enroll.”
That’s what she wants to change. Over the past few months, Deserae has added a job to her list of responsibilities: Community Mentor with the global nonprofit Right To Play. The organization uses sport and play to educate and empower children and youth living in adversity. Right To Play’s Promoting Life-skills in Aboriginal Youth (PLAY) program started two months ago in British Columbia, with a $3 million gift from Microsoft YouthSpark. The goal is to reach 3,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) children and youth across the province, over three years. Deserae and other Community Mentors in the province receive special training to facilitate the program, which employs local community members to work with kids.
A typical day with Deserae includes a light snack for the kids, followed by fun, active games that require teamwork and collaboration. In “snail race,” two teams sit on the ground in lines. Each child reaches back and holds the ankles of the child behind her. They “bum-skootch” around cones, each team competing to reach the finish line. The game requires teamwork, with communication about how to reach a common goal, under physically complicated circumstances. It’s silly – but that’s the point. The kids have a great time and learn life skills in the process. Later in the day, it’s basketball, badminton or soccer, along with Right To Play-designed games that subtly teach positive life-lessons. As the games end, the kids are ready to focus on homework. That’s where Deserae has seen the biggest changes.
“After just two months in the program, the kids actually ask to do their homework,” she says. The younger kids thrive on the encouragement she gives for completing their schoolwork, and the fact that the older kids tutor and encourage them. She also thinks the afternoon’s games get children in the right state of mind to keep learning.
Before getting her Right To Play training, Deserae says was lucky to have six or seven kids regularly show up for after-school programs. Today she typically has more than 25. The program is already near its goal of signing up close to 100 children who live in Williams Lake. These are exactly the kinds of results Microsoft President Brad Smith and others at the company hoped to see when Microsoft helped facilitate Right To Play’s expansion into 24 FMNI communities in British Columbia.
“British Columbia has become a second home for Microsoft, and we’re committed to the future of this community, its economy, and especially its young people,” Smith said today in a Right To Play news release. “Right To Play gives First Nation, Inuit and Métis youth the opportunity to learn and grow, through sport and play. This is a mission Microsoft is eager to support.”
First Nation, Inuit and Métis youth face challenges in British Columbia, including a 50 percent high school dropout rate. Right To Play is the perfect organization to address this, Smith adds, because they already run successful PLAY programs in Ontario and Manitoba.
“I used to have to come up with programs for the kids on my own,” Deserae says, explaining why the training she received from Right To Play is having such an impact. “Now the programs we run help kids learn while they’re having fun – and learn in a way that sticks with them.”
Thanks to terrific Community Mentors, and a tremendous international nonprofit, it’s great to see kids in British Columbia have that opportunity – and to develop, as Deserae calls it, “a hunger for learning.”