Joshua Roth had gone to 14 schools by the time he earned his high school diploma last June.
It wasn’t until the last one — a small alternative high school called the Ambassador school program for youth in child welfare— that Roth finally began to see himself as someone who could be a successful student with a future.
“I never actually believed it until I went to the Ambassador program,” says Roth, 23, who had a tumultuous childhood in Toronto, went into foster care at age 2 and says he was kicked out of school for the first time in Grade 2.
He arrived almost three years ago ready to give up on himself. Now he’s on his way to Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, where he’ll study to become a fish and wildlife conservation technician.
“I’m getting ready for college, I’m preparing to move to a place I’ve never been,” says Roth. I’m actually excited and I see a path for myself.”
Thanks to former Toronto Argonauts legend Michael “Pinball” Clemons, other at-risk youth will also have a shot at this kind of turnaround.
The Ambassador program, in existence since 1991, depends solely on funding from private donors through the Children’s Aid Foundation. When Clemons learned its future was precarious, he stepped in with a donation of $500,000 from his charitable foundation, which he says is committed to helping transform disadvantaged youth “from surviving to thriving.”
On Monday, he will be at the school as it is officially renamed the Pinball Clemons Foundation Ambassador School Program.
By funding education, “you’re giving a handup, not a handout,” Clemons said in an interview Friday.
“The whole idea is empowering these young people,” added the former football star, who grew up in the projects in Florida. “We’re investing in them.”
The donation guarantees the school will operate for the next three years, which Ambassador program co-ordinator Geoffrey Newland said is “a huge weight off our shoulders.”
Additional funds raised by the Children’s Aid Foundation will go towards capital improvements or adding new programs to the school, which has existed in its current form for the past five years in a downtown house, where it accommodates up to 15 full-time and three part-time students at a time.
Students get individual support to earn one credit at a time at their own pace, while also learning such life skills as budgeting, cooking, fitness and career planning. While designed for youth currently or formerly in care, that isn’t a prerequisite. Most kids are referred through social services.
Students use curriculum from the Independent Learning Centre, a Ministry of Education division for distance learners which administers all exams marking.
It’s a small program but Newland says it has a big impact.
Only 46 per cent of youth in Ontario’s child welfare system graduate from high school, often a result of turmoil associated with childhood abuse, neglect, homelessness and the instability of moving between foster homes. Many are diagnosed with learning disabilities and mental health issues.
But once they get the help they need to understand themselves, learn strategies and set goals, students failing at mainstream schools can start earning top marks, says Newland.
Graduates have studied psychology or architecture at university, enrolled in college programs to go into social services or trades, or go straight into the workforce.
“It’s really awesome when I see youth who suddenly really believe they can do it … who say this is my dream and I’m going to make that happen,” he says.
School was never an easy place for Roth, who went into foster care as a result of his mother’s mental illness. Angry and distressed, he began acting out. As a teen, he became depressed and struggled to attend classes.
Three years ago, he was living on his own and enrolled at an adult learning centre working on his last few credits. But he soon found himself overwhelmed, lonely and ready to give up.
Then a youth worker told him about the Ambassador program.
What made the difference, he says, was the nurturing environment and individual support that helped him come to terms with his challenges and strengths and cope with his depression and ADHD.
“Everyone here kind of understands each other,” says Chantel Campbell, 20, who’s in her second year with the program. “We’ve all gone through something and we’re all there for a reason.”
Campbell, who left home in her early teens and says she started abusing drugs and alcohol, ended up in a foster home and left school, where she never thought she belonged.
Without the support of the Ambassador program, “I would have been a high school dropout,” she says. This fall the young woman who has struggled with self-confidence stood up and told her story to hundreds of people at a Pinball Foundation gala.
Now she’s on track to graduate in 2018 and after that wants to pursue a career as a child and youth worker.
Roth says he’s ready for his next milestone.
“I have my diploma, there’s nothing holding me back now.”