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Aly Gulamhusein/the Gauntlet

Maestros of their fates

Boys and Girls Club program teaches youth employment skills through art

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The phrase "employment skills" may call to mind grey visions of workshops and the rigid confines of classroom lectures. The facilitators of Maestro, however, believe that learning best occurs through creativity.

Maestro is an initiative supported by the Government of Canada that strives to help young people gain job and lifestyle skills such as budgeting, nutrition, resume building, interview skills and job searching. Now in its second year in Calgary, Maestro is realized in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, an organization focused on helping at-risk children and youth.

Using music, creative writing and art as a means to teach, Maestro takes place over 52 weeks, which includes the additional opportunity for 10 weeks of work experience.

The government pays youth a wage while they are in the program. To qualify for the program, youth have to be between the ages of 15 and 30, not have a job and have barriers to employment. They also must not be currently attending school.

The Maestro program tries to incorporate the arts as much as possible. "Everything is integrated, so when we're doing music, we're talking about life skills and when we're learning we try to use dramatic arts," says Sarah Kemmers, manager of education and employment for the Boys and Girls Club.

"We try and make everything we do, for the most part, really creative. It's a really incredible opportunity for youths who have faced difficulties to overcome them in a way that isn't formal. It's a unique opportunity to develop as a person, but also to gain a skill set."

Not only do participants get to write and record a song, but they must write about the hardships they have overcome-- such as jail time, depression, suicide attempts and war-induced post-traumatic stress.

"Sometimes we just float through life and we don't think about things or we don't identify what our barriers are and what our plans and goals are to overcome it," Kemmers continues.

"This program allows them to do it in creative ways, so they journal and they draw their goals and they sing their goals and they sing their dreams and it just provides an opportunity to really reflect on . . . where they're going."

As a result, a main focus of the program is the integration of self-discovery and the acquisition of career skills. As a facilitator stated, "Art is mostly . . . self-exploration, which is very important for me. A lot of these youth have never really thought about what their strengths are and what their natural-born talents are and how to put that into play in the job market."

"A large part of the self-discovery is figuring out what they want and then giving them the skills to do it and keep it," adds Kemmers.

"I try to do stuff now. Like, I spend time now writing about what I do and what I did in the past. Since I came here, I started learning about myself," says a participant.

Another participant states that the Maestro program's creative activities have taught him patience, a skill that he says he was greatly lacking. "I had never liked school and I was always doing bad stuff, but now that I'm changing my life around, I've really started to see the importance of patience. I'm just here to learn and to focus on my dreams."

The program doesn't just foster self-discovery and job skill development-- hope and empowerment are also key elements. "We give them a sense that they have a right to a better life, and we show them how," the facilitator remarks.

"People are more confident when they leave-- they feel more capable, they know more of what is out there . . . I think what we really give them is a sense of hope and the ability to trust in a really positive environment."

Through the Maestro program, youth will be enabled to affect positive change in their own lives using something that interests and engages them-- art.

"I like coming here," says a participant. "It just impresses me so much that I can do something with my life."

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