Jane Mcwhirter spends much of her time surrounded by paint brushes and pencils, but before she graduated from the Urban Canvas Project her life was headed down a very different path.
“I had very low self-esteem, had abused substances and drank a for a very long time. I had been in the psych ward and faced a lot of difficulty,” McWhirter said.
“I was fed up with the way I was living and excited for something new but didn’t know what. I heard about the Urban Canvas and it just came along at the perfect opportunity and seemed like something I should look into. It’s probably one of the best decisions I ever made.”
McWhirter is one of the last graduates from the program which helped get Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming(SCYAP) off the ground in 2010. After her graduation, she entered university and gained stable employment.
At the same time, the federal Youth Employment Strategy changed and the program lost its funding. For five years McWhirter waited, anticipating funding would eventually come back. This month, her hopes have been fulfilled.
” It was so influential. It just took me places I never thought I’d go. I can’t even believe sometimes where I am in comparison to where I was five years ago,” she said.
“I went from waiting to die or slowly killing myself to living life and loving life. I learned how to paint, I learned how to accept myself, and I learned how to love myself. In turn, the world is a completely different place; it’s so beautiful.”
SCYAP executive director and founder Darrell Lechman said McWhirter’s success story is just one of many from the program he created and runs. After working at a maximum prison for 15 years and then with boys and girls clubs in Edmonton, Lechman began to see a connection between at-risk youth and art.
“Almost all of the young aboriginal people that I came in touch with, and was able to befriend, seemed to have an interest in art. A lot of them did art, some of them used it as a stress thing,” he said. “When I really started to look into that, for kids to get art lessons in Edmonton, it was very difficult. Basically if you didn’t have some income you couldn’t get any art training.”
Once in Saskatoon, he decided to combine equal access to arts training and one-on-one personal development into a program – the Urban Canvas Project. Successful candidates work for minimum wage five days a week for 34 weeks at SCYAP. They learn art skills, life skills, volunteer throughout the community, and design murals in the city.
“If we could get them to challenge barriers and get a better understanding of responsibility and commitment, and be excited, confident and happy with themselves and life, then the chances of them actually being able to be successful again or successful in formal education or in work would be a lot higher,” he said.
SCYAP did a formal survey the year after they lost funding with all of the candidates in the program. Lechman said they had a 90 per cent success rate, with graduates either in school, formal education, or in sustainable employment.
“It’s incredible if you look at success for people who weren’t working, were on social assistance, some of them forever, now they are not,” Lechman said.
Lechman said he was approached by a senior deputy minister with the provincial government a few months ago to see if they could get it going again. The government was able to allocate $185,000 in funding and the project will return on Sept. 24.
Di Decaire will be ready to welcome the new recruits into the program that helped change her life.
“My life wasn’t on a good track. I was going in and out of hospitals and that’s not fun. Going from place to place not sure about thing… I thought this was it, I’m not going to get employed. I’m not going to go back to school or university.” Decaire said.
“Now I’m more settled, doing more positive things.. going to university.”
From developing art skills to building a resume, Decaire said the program gave her confidence to believe in her future.
Lechman said it’s those changing behaviours that make the program an important investment for Saskatoon.
“We figure in those first 10 (years) we saved government about $3.5 million. That’s over and above the money they give us for the project,” he said. “That’s on health care, social assistance, crime, justice system, corrections, all of the things that would have cost them money.”