Clarissa Arthur was 17, with a three-month-old son, Dyon, when in 1995 she discovered Youville Centre, an Ottawa charity that supports young mothers and their children through help with education, childcare, and social services.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Arthur moved to Ottawa at the age of 11, after her parents’ divorce. She had trouble adjusting, and began acting out; stealing, skipping school, getting into fights, and running away from home.
Then, two weeks after her 17th birthday, she discovered she was pregnant. “I knew then, it was time to change,” she said in a recent interview. “My boyfriend and I broke up and I knew I was going to do it on my own.”
With the support of her mother, Arthur had her baby, and was determined to continue her education. She soon enrolled at Youville Centre, and was amazed at the support she found there.
“It was such a sense of community and family that if I didn’t feel accepted anywhere else, I knew that I could always call Youville Centre home,” she said.
Not only did she achieve good grades and form strong bonds with students and staff, she was connected with many important resources.
“We were connected with the food bank on a weekly basis, this helped provide meals for me and my baby,” she said. “There was a van that picked the moms and babies up twice a week so that we wouldn’t have to take the bus every day. Parenting classes were offered and support staff were always on hand to support us in any way we needed.”
Arthur, now 36 and a mother of two, went on to achieve her honours diploma in the Child and Youth Worker Program at Algonquin College. In 2001, she returned to Algonquin to complete the Intensive Early Childhood Education Program. Now, she is the coordinator of Youville Centre’s Child Development Program.
Arthur’s story illustrates Youville Centre’s core mandate: motivate, educate and nurture young mothers and their children to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society.
“Each of Youville Centre’s young mothers is different, and each has her own unique story,” said Heather Heagney of Communications and Community Development for Youville Centre.
“The one thing they all have in common is that they are doing their best to study, parent, and build brighter futures for themselves and their children.”
Heagney said some Youville students come from supportive homes, and some do not have a strong family unit. Some have financial support from their family; however, most are on social assistance (Ontario Works).
Most live alone with their child, often in low-income housing.
“Some challenges that most of our students have faced include low-income status, depression, anxiety, trauma and other and social struggles.”
Founded in 1985, Youville Centre was the first charity in Canada to address the need for education, childcare, housing and support services for young, single mothers and their children, according to the centre’s website.
Originally, Youville Centre was housed in a former school building in Hintonburg on Melrose Avenue. In 2001, the centre moved to its Mann Avenue location.
At Youville Centre, young moms between 15 and 21 receive their high school education through the M.F. McHugh Education Centre, with individualized programs, small classes and parenting courses.
And while moms are in school, their infants and toddlers are enrolled in the on-site day care.
Staff also provide crisis intervention and counselling, advocacy, and referrals for current students, clients on Youville’s waiting list, and former students.
In partnership with St. Mary’s Home, Youville also offers a young father’s program, with a weekly support group, parenting support, individual counselling and a father/child drop in.
In 27 years, Youville Centre has served more than 900 young mothers, and roughly half of those have received their high school diploma while at Youville Centre. The rest have either gone on to complete their education at an adult high school or began working.
Future plans for the non-profit include becoming a fully accredited mental health agency, and continue to provide cutting-edge, evidence-informed programs and services, she said.
Youville Centre is also running a Mother’s Day campaign in May asking people to donate in their mother’s name, with a $10,000 fundraising goal.
And Youville alumnae often feel compelled to give back and support the organization that supported them when they needed it most, as in Arthur’s case.
“When I look back at my time at Youville Centre and I look at the pictures of my son and I during that time, I can see how young I actually was,” she said. “It is such a huge responsibility to have a child at any age, but to have a child at an age when you’re still a child yourself can be a tall mountain to climb.
“Youville Centre has helped me grow into the woman I am today. Coming from a place where I felt judged and overwhelmed, I gained the skills to feel good about myself despite my adversity; to know that although I had a child young, it was not the end of the road for me. It meant I had to work harder, but to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Working hard means that I am able to look back and relish in my success, acknowledging that I would be unable to truly appreciate the good times if I didn’t experience tough times along the way.”
For more information about Youville Centre, email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.youvillecentre.org/blog, or follow on Facebook (Youville Centre – Ottawa) and Twitter (@YouvilleCentre).
Photo: Clarissa Arthur