The first time youth enter the colourful space that houses the Basic Life Skills Training (BLT) program, they can immediately sense that it’s going to be different from other mental health services they’ve experienced. From the graffiti-style artwork covering the walls to a music studio, the space looks nothing like a traditional therapist’s office.
BLT has chosen to swap standard counseling practices with what they call “music therapy, community, and connection.” Staff has all confessed that it’s more involved, but it’s paying off. Going the unconventional route has turned out to be exactly what kids like Justin need to overcome some of their struggles.
“I’ve been coming here since I was like 13, almost five years ago now. And I just love this place. I’ve struggled with other counselling approaches before but here, I just feel like they actually understand me and where I’m coming from,” said Justin.
“I was a little shy when I came here, but I could tell it was going to be awesome. They’re just friendly and smiling all the time, plus all the plants and everything.”
He also pointed how he enjoyed being able to strike a balance between talking about things that he enjoys, along with any struggles that he might be going through at home or with connections in his life.
Ethan, a youth that’s been coming to the center for two years said, “there’s a lot of good musical equipment here and good people to hang out with good activities. What keeps me coming back is that here you’ve got people to talk to, so that’s always good.”
“You’d be surprised how hard that is to find these days. Someone to just straight up, just talk about your week or whatever you’re doing. And here there are a lot of good stories to hear and tell,” Ethan continued.
One of Ethan’s favourite activities with the group was going white water rafting. The group regularly takes the youth outdoors for both their physical and mental health.
The program’s budget hasn’t changed much in 20 years, so some of the outings and extras are covered by the “happy fund.” Since 2019, an anonymous donor has provided an ongoing discretionary fund. Staff can use the donated money to support participants who have aged out of the foster care system and may need furniture or small appliance. It also allows staff to take the participants out for lunch or pay for necessities like auto insurance so youth can attend or bed bug removal.
Rob in the music room with a youth
Staff members Kerry, Rob, and James work as a team with shared caseloads to help teenagers overcome their mental health and life struggles. They currently have a capacity for up to 30 teens from Langley, Surrey.
“Our referrals all come from the Langley Child Mental Health Team, who are the gatekeepers. We work with kids that would generally not engage in traditional therapies like one-on-one sessions because they don’t feel comfortable,” said James.
Another component of the program is mentorship. Current and past clients are welcome to drop in, which leads to the alumni interacting with current youth.
“When they walk in, they see younger kids and they talk to them because they’ve been through it all and they understand. They can also tell them the system and what works, and so on. So, it works because it’s following the natural course. When you follow what’s real and true, it just works itself out,” Rob explained.
Having a safe place to hang out can help youth avoid getting into trouble. Justin recognized this and said, “if I was hanging out with my friends, we’d be doing something stupid.”
Justin is about to turn 19, which means he will be aged out of the BLT program. Looking back on the impact of the program in his life he shared, “during my senior year in order to graduate, they supported me a lot. There are a lot of bad things that happen but some good things as well. And I feel like if I didn’t come here every week, my life would not be as good as it is.”
BLT Staff Kerry, Rob and James
Mental Wellness During COVID
James and Kerry have worked at Archway for over 15 years and have noticed an increase in suicides, addiction issues, and mental health struggles over the last year and a half.
Kerry recalled an incident when a youth asked what the name of the center was. When he told her, she looked at him and without missing a beat said, ‘there’s nothing basic about keeping someone alive.”
In further conversation, it came out that she had lost both her parents to suicide within four years of each other.
Clients also note the increased struggles. “It’s a problem that everyone has to deal with now, it’s more common than you think,” Ethan said quietly.
“It’s like when you hang around other people, you start to realize like, wow, cause when you’re on your own and isolated, it’s like, you don’t know, you think it’s just you.”
As an essential service, BLT remained open during COVID with safety precautions. They shifted to more visits outside, whether it was pulling up chairs outside the building or going on walks with youth. They tried to avoid too many virtual meetings as they believe in the importance of in-person connection.
During a formal accreditation review process, the surveyors noted that BLT “offers almost magical healing for troubled youth” and “genuine unconditional acceptance.”
“The secret isn’t a therapy or a technique, it’s just people and community. It’s about having a safe place where you can hang out and feel safe,” Rob concluded.