Spotlight: YMCA Northern Alberta in Wood Buffalo

“There is a whole world of untapped resources and mentorship,” says Erin Brann, Program Director of Bridging the Gap, YMCA of Northern Alberta in Wood Buffalo. She was surprised by the number of individuals and professionals in the community who were ready to be a mentor. “Once you start digging into the opportunities that are available to individuals in the community of Fort McMurray, many businesses want to be part of an activity such as mentorship so that opened my eyes,” she says.

The YMCA of Northern Alberta joined the Alberta Mentorship Program as one of two pilot partners. Their Career Mentorship Program connects internationally-trained immigrants and refugees with local mentors who help them develop networking strategies, improve their understanding of Canadian work culture, and better prepare them for work in the Wood Buffalo region.

“Our community of newcomers needs concrete examples to see other immigrants who just went through the same thing as they did,” says Adeline Azangue, Program Coordinator Employment. These mentors become a bridge that helps the mentee cross from unemployment or unsatisfactory employment to a fulfilling career in Canada. “Having a mentor who provides this example helps to transfer the skills and experience of senior or high-performing employees to newer or less experienced employees in order to advance the mentee's career,” says Adeline.

Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region is home to many qualified newcomers who are seeking mentorship in specific fields. “They have career skills or training that they wish to use in Canada,” says Erin. “Pairing them with a mentor can assist them in this objective.”

Mentee Yvonne Planco found that having a mentor was invaluable. “My mentor was able to help motivate me, improve my English, improve my communication, improve my writing, improve my self-confidence,“ she says. Yvonne believes that mentorship works. "My mentor helped me to prepare myself for the interview: what are the qualifications, how I need to present myself in the interview. Then I got the job!” she says.

What were your biggest challenges?

Finding mentors is always one of the biggest challenges for any new mentorship program. This became a bigger program for the YMCA of Northern Alberta because they started a new program just before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. Not only did they need to figure out how to attract mentors to their program, but they also had to do it while adjusting to a more virtual platform.

“The pandemic and the 2020 spring flood made it more challenging to find people with the capacity to take this on while managing the other stressors at that time,” says Erin. “We also noticed that people were leaving the Wood Buffalo area to seek employment opportunities elsewhere when the economy started to shut down because of closures due to the pandemic and related restrictions.”

This was further complicated by the typical 10-to-12-hour long work shift for people in Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo. The program coordinators had to get creative about making time for people who wanted to help but felt like they were too busy. By being flexible with time and schedule expectations, more people felt able to get involved. “We offered a personalized journey between two individuals who were experiencing or had experienced difficulties in the Canadian workplace,” says Erin.

Once the program was set up, they found follow-up for feedback very difficult. Adeline knew how critical feedback was for a new program. Evaluations can help programs adjust to meet the needs of both the mentors and mentees successfully. “Participants were so overwhelmed during the pandemic, that we had to contact participants many times to get feedback,” said Adeline.

The team was able to work through the challenges with the support of the Alberta Mentorship Program and their own hard work. Being systematic and patient paid off. They were able to connect to mentors who understood the value of mentorship and being a mentor because they themselves had been mentored as newcomers.

Veronica Flores choose to become a mentor because the experience was so valuable when she first came to Canada. “I wanted to put my skills to service of the people who are coming to Canada and looking to start a career here.”

It was similar for Shivani Vaikunth. After having been mentored when she first arrived in Canada, she finds that being a mentor brings so much positivity from the mentee because they are ready and eager to contribute their skills to their new community. She believes that she learns from each person that she mentors, which always makes the experience rewarding.

What did you do well?

The mentorship program was well-supported with materials and information for participants like their mentee/mentor handbook and with an effective orientation session. However, their best success was building relationships with all the participants. “Keeping in touch and following up consistently with participants on their progress during their mentoring relationships kept everyone connected,” says Adeline.

Erin feels like one word could sum up what they did well in Wood Buffalo: persevere. They were handed an unexpected challenge, but in the end, they succeeded. “The staff really got creative and found the drive to keep pushing forward and didn’t give up on the task of finding people to participate. That was what made this project successful,” she says.

An unexpected success of the mentorship program was that it “allowed us to discover other organizations that we did not know before. We learned about their services while sharing our regular services with others,” says Adeline.

Erin agrees, “The opportunity to take part in a mentorship program has really opened up a lot of interesting and exciting conversations with new and existing stakeholders.”

What advice would you share with other programs?

“Don’t re-create the wheel. Take the materials available to you and then build on that to tailor the program to suit the needs of your community and clients. Continue to revise as needed,” says Erin. If you are starting a new mentorship program, talk to people running other programs or look at the resources freely available on the Alberta Mentorship Program website. Building on proven, existing resources can save you time, and you can focus on building relationships with partners and participants who will support your program."

The hard work that the YMCA Northern Alberta put into the mentorship program was worth it. In the end, mentorship is all about the relationships and building the skills of both mentors and mentees. “I would definitely recommend working with a mentee because the special relationship and the discussions I have with the mentee that contribute to their success is very rewarding,” says Shivani. “Each mentee teaches me something that will give us positivity in our life and that will live with us forever.”

“It’s very fulfilling when you see your mentee succeed,” says Veronica. Not only in their professional careers but when you know that you helped them with the resume and things like that. They feel really happy and they accomplish their goals. It is hard to explain how happy you feel when you help people.”

See all our videos about the YMCA Northern Alberta (Wood Buffalo) Mentorship program on our YouTube Channel.

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