The youth at VOCYL know what it’s like not to fit in, and they’re using their experiences to promote inclusion at local middle schools.
VOCYL, which stands for Victoria Opportunities for Community Youth Leadership, offers youth with and without disabilities a mentorship platform, teaching them leadership skills and allowing them to share their stories with others. This past school year, VOCYL visited Glanford and Cedar Hill middle schools, speaking with Grade 6 students about fitting in among their peers.
“The presentations focus on things like courage, kindness, reaching out, bullying, cliques, and challenging the students to think about including people in their school that might have a barrier to belonging,” said Tracy Lemke, program co-ordinator for VOYCL.
“We started presenting in high schools, and we quickly learned through student feedback that their most challenging years were middle school. In high school, they’d often found their niche or their group of friends, but middle school – transitioning from Grade 5 to Grade 6 – was the hardest time for them.”
VOCYL’s 22 members do presentations three times per year to raise inclusion awareness among middle school students. Over the last eight years, VOCYL has presented to more than 4,500 students on Vancouver Island, challenging them to reach out to their classmates who may not feel like they belong.
“Each VOCYL member will share their own personal story,” said Lemke. “If they have a developmental disability, they’ll share what that is, how it’s impacted their life, and also helping the kids to see they have a lot of similarities.
“I think a lot of kids are never told, ‘People are going to remember you by the way you treat them.’ We can have this idea of wanting people to remember us in a good way, but our actions can go against that.”
The VOCYL program is run by the Victoria Community Living Foundation, an independent, registered charitable organization. VOCYL is funded by donations from the Victoria Foundation, Coast Capital Savings, Telus, the Victoria Real Estate Board and the Island Savings GIFT program.
While the group has a break for summer while school is out, VOCYL is already co-ordinating which middle schools they will visit in the fall. Lemke said the program is looking to expand to schools on the West Shore, given its growing population.
For more information on VOCYL, visit communitylivingvictoria.ca/services-programs/youth-services/vocyl/.