By Cam Martin
In the troubled community of Hobbema, twenty-five children were recently given the opportunity to imagine a brighter future. Promoting higher education is a priority within the community of 12,000 comprised mostly of four Cree nations. The students, aged 13 to 17, got a taste of college life during a two-week Youth Education and Career Pathway program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary. The program is independently funded by grants from sponsors and offers students a new perspective on education.
The Hobbema community has been affected by gang and drug problems for years, and the schools have become havens for unsavoury characters. Carolyn Buffalo, Chief of the Montana Cree First Nation, admits, “Our children have learned very well that schools are not safe places.” Gang activity in the community is believed to be responsible for the recent shooting death of five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird.
The career program aims to show children that pursuing an education is a worthwhile endeavour that will benefit their whole lives. “We want these kids to have a chance to make informed decisions about their academic options,” said Sandi Hiemer, guidance counselor at Montana School in Hobbema. During the program, students stayed in residence and participated in a range of classes from the practical courses teaching culinary skills and automotive mechanics, to more technical courses like web design and video production.
One boy, 14-year-old Paul Coucher, helped build a go-cart during his stay at SAIT and found the experience very rewarding. “I want to get into college or university, but I have to keep my marks up,” he says. Participation in the program is considered a privilege and is available to students with good academic standing, reinforcing the benefits of attending school regularly and maintaining good grades.
Program supporters and organizers hope that children who attend the program will become ambassadors for other children in the community by sharing their experiences and inspiring others to value their education, showing them that school is something to be embraced rather than rejected. Perhaps this positive influence will help ensure that fewer students turn to drugs and crime. Chief Buffalo notes, “Whenever we can give our kids any little help so that they can feel like they can succeed, it’s priceless. Our graduation completion rates are so low, so when we give kids the tools and the confidence to go out and do something like this, it’s good. Every single graduate is a huge success for all of us.”