April 17

By Sean Meyer

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Amanda Kennedy has seen first-hand the impact of discrimination, mental health and addiction issues can have on children and youth, not only in First Nations communities, but really in just about every community.

Her tool for combating these realities is the Yotuni Social Enterprise, which she launched in January 2017.

In the Oneida language, yotuni means, “it’s growing,” which in some respects reflects the goals of her organization.

“We do camps and workshops and programs for at-risk children and youth,” Amanda said. “Our main focus being First Nations, however, our secondary focus is newcomers and immigrants. Thirdly, it’s all children and youth from all walks of life who are in needs of our programs and services.”

Kennedy, from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, grew up in west London’s Manor Park neighbourhood, a First Nation, low-income family co-op, where many of her friends ended up on a dark path of self-destruction.

Although her grandparents are residential school survivors, Kennedy is quick to say she was “blessed with good parents who worked hard to break a lot of cycles for me.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for many of her friends and neighbours.

For a lot of the other children in her neighbourhood, their grandparents were also residential school survivors, but their parents struggled with addictions and mental health issues.

Not surprisingly, these obstacles had a major effect on the children and youth she grew up with.

“We were labelled as gangs, being in the bad neighbourhood, we were treated as bad people, as criminals; we had those negative labels,” Amanda said. “I developed Yotuni because the children and youth today need something, so they don’t end up on those paths. I’ve seen where those paths go, where that journey leads, so I’m trying to prevent that from happening to our children and youth.”

Amanda’s efforts at creating change started in 2014 with an initiative called Yesalihuni, which means “they will teach you” in Oneida.

Through that initiative Amanda explains the children and youth actually taught her about some of the issues, problems, and emotions they were dealing with.

After carrying out a community assessment, working with some youth group meetings, having a youth council, working within the community, Yotuni formed as a social enterprise with its home base being found at Innovation Works.

Although she was actually invited to join Innovation Works as a cotenant early on, Amanda said she wasn’t quite ready. Today, Yotuni has a small staff of 15 who are working with 50 children and youth.

Once she was established — and she came into Innovation Works under the Libro Credit Union’s incubator program — the experience has been positive for both the work of her organization, as well as her own mental health.

Not only have the Innovation Works staff and her fellow cotenants offered her support, “emotionally, spiritually, mentally,” but it has helped her develop her program to aid those who often feel their needs are being neglected by the wider community.

“You get support, inspiration, it’s a positive atmosphere inside here and I can’t wait to bring our youth in here too,” Amanda said. “I have complete confidence they won’t be judged, won’t be mistreated or labelled. I love the fact everyone is so respectful of my culture, respectful of the First Nations people, respectful that this is our land, and they are willing to become more involved.”

For more information on Yotuni Social Enterprise, visit http://www.yotuni.org.