Hay River business helps keep lights on for youth

Hay River business helps keep lights on for youth
Teens enjoy a meal during Lights On at Diamond Jenness SS in Hay River.Photo courtesy of t Lights On Hay River/Facebook.

As the lights come back on in schools across the NWT, a special program in Hay River is set to get a boost.

For about the past seven years the Lights On weekend/after-school program has been giving as many as 50 youth at a time somewhere to go on Friday and Saturday evenings.

This September, the second-generation owners of the Super-A/Express Gas will be donating the proceeds from their latest “round-up” point-of-sale campaign to the program, run by teachers at Diamond Jenness Secondary School and Princess Alexandra elementary school.

It’ll be a full-circle kind of thing at the end of the four-week effort, as the Super-A helped Lights On with a $4,100 donation in November 2013, according to owner Tracy Rewega-Hill.

This time around, they want to help kick off the new school year.

“They’re probably looking for ways to fundraise, so this is a way to give them a boost to get up and running at the start of the school year,” Rewega-Hill said. “We do about three or four of the round-ups per year. People approach us to do a fundraiser for their group, and Lights On mentioned earlier this year they would be interested in doing another one. It’s local and it benefits kids in the community and that’s what a lot of our round-ups are dedicated to.”

Rewega-Hill anticipates another strong response at the till from the community given the popularity of the program.

The local Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) topped up the Super-A donation with $1,500 of their own back in 2013. President Gary Hoffman said Lights On has been growing steadily since it launched.

“As a service club, we think it’s a perfect cause and we’ve always supported them, from Day One,” he said. “Kids’ operations is what the Elks donate to mainly, specifically speech and hearing, and Lights On is a very easy decision. In a lot of cases, they tell us their budget and we donate an amount because we know they’re going to others for money. But we say ‘if you come up short, come back to us because we want to make sure it happens.’”

Founder Jill Taylor, a teacher at Diamond Jenness, said the idea was born at the supper table. Her son Matthew was in Grade 9, right at the time when teens really start going to parties. She asked him for an alternative.

“He said if you open up the gym, me and my friends will come, there’s nothing for us to do,” Taylor said.

So that’s what she and her husband did for the first year in 2008-09, opening the gym up and allowing teens to play basketball or pickup floor hockey for a few hours.

About 18 months later Taylor received a Health Canada grant, allowing her to hire dedicated staff to provide a high level of supervision, something she had promised parents. Between paid employees and volunteers, Taylor said there are always five adults on site.

They expanded to a second night, and started opening up Princess Alexandra (PA) elementary school and running a parallel program for younger kids. There are Xbox and Wii games, but they’re all sport- or activity-based.

“That’s when it really took off.”

The round-up donation will be well-received at the end of the month. Taylor said between feeding 50 teens at the high school and 50 youth at PA, the grocery bill for the year approaches $10,000, a far cry from the few bags of popcorn and juice that did the trick in year one.

“Teenagers love to eat,” she said. “And we make pretty elaborate meals now. We’ve had a fish fry, a barbecue, different cultural nights (one featuring cod cheeks). It’s whatever they want.”

The recreational opportunities have expanded too. The Friday program is still based in the gym, but on Saturday the entire school is open, from the kitchen, to the concourse (a sprawling entry atrium with space for activities and even musical performances) and even the music room.

And like the cuisine, it’s whatever they want, as expressed in an annual survey that helps Taylor fine tune the program between school years.

“They love ping-pong, they’ll play cards, we have beading and other crafts, and there’s lots of room for games.”

Bottom line, Lights On provides a service for youth that the municipality just doesn’t have the capacity to take on, according to Mayor Andrew Cassidy.

“It’s something that’s of value to the community, and the real value is that it’s community-driven, seeing grassroots volunteers step up and provide a service that’s required in the community,” he said. “They have the resources and the network and access to facilities the town wouldn’t. That’s what we really value.”

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