Sunny Tsawwassen summer youth program shines despite COVID-19

Taking his trowel from the cart, Parker focuses as he carefully tills the soil, trying to dig a large enough hole for the geraniums in the planter bed.

Using his eyes to measure the depth, he picks up the geraniums and eases them into the earth. Not deep enough. He tries again.

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Nearby, his co-worker Austin is watering the flowers Parker has already planted, welcoming the red-coloured annuals to their new home in front of the Tsawwassen Return-It.

Parker, 17, and Austin 16 (who is quick to mention he's turning 17 soon), are summer youth employees of the Tsawwassen Business Improvement Association (more commonly known by its monicker of Sunny Tsawwassen).

The community ambassador program was created in collaboration with the TBIA, the Delta Community Living Society (DCLS) and the Delta School District, to assist youth in making the transition from high school to the adult world.

The Leading Employment and Achieving Possibilities (LEAP) program run through DCLS, offers youth with disabilities the opportunity to gain valuable job experience, and provide them with the chance to see what sorts of careers they might be interested in.

This is the fifth consecutive summer that Sunny Tsawwassen has employed young "community ambassadors" through LEAP, a program that continues despite the challenges presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we were initially concerned that we might be forced to postpone the program this year, we were pleased to see the risk diminish to the point where we could safely continue with a smaller team,” said Michelle Barlow, executive director of Sunny Tsawwassen.

Although the job is outside and the work is safely physically distanced, both Parker and Austin wear face masks at all times to minimize the risk of contracting any illnesses. Both teens readily admit they like working outside and with their hands. Although Parker is currently undecided on what might be his ultimate dream job as an adult, Austin is interested in becoming an electrician.

“It definitely isn't an outside job for the most part,” he says, looking a bit disappointed before brightening up. “But it seems like it would be a good job to have.”

Beyond the benefit of providing summer jobs to youth, the projects keep Sunny Tsawwassen looking great for residents and visitors alike. During the past five years, LEAPers have engaged in projects like painting, planting flowers, helping out during community events, and sprucing up the front of many businesses.

“Our purpose with this program isn't simply to complete a task of cleaning and beautification,” added Barlow. “It's an opportunity to provide a real-life work experience for our community ambassadors.”

Getting that work experience is a true collaborative effort. DCLS works with local youth who are interested in summer jobs and Sunny Tsawwassen pays their wages and provides them with equipment and tools. Funding is provided in part through the Canada Summer Jobs Grant.

Along the way, several youth have received mentorship opportunities in the form of learning from experienced employees of local businesses, or from the staff at Sunny Tsawwassen.

“Each year we see our community ambassadors enjoy making a valuable contribution to our community,” said Barlow. “They are often approached by members of the community who thank them for their efforts. Over the past five years we've seen so many great results from our former community ambassadors who have been able to go on to find employment in their community. We're just happy to have played some part in their journey.”

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