By J.W. Schnarr
Southern Alberta Newspapers – Lethbridge
Some young people – including children – are struggling under an expectation to support their families, organizers of a youth employment readiness program have learned.
Diane Llewelyn-Jones is a co-ordinator for the Youth Employment Program offered through the Taber and District Adult Learning Association. The program was in operation for about seven months before federal funding was abruptly cut.
While the focus of the program was overcoming barriers to employment such as education and lack of experience, it wasn’t long before organizers realized some students were dealing with an additional hardship in their lives – some of them were supporting their parents or other family members.
“It finally came out: ‘I’m paying my mother’s rent for her home,'” Llewelyn Jones said. “We were like, ‘At 21?'”
She said they have heard from young people who say up to 80 per cent of their paycheques have gone to their families from the time they started working.
“It was just an expectation,” she said. “And a lot of it is because their parents had minimum-wage jobs. Because they never had an opportunity to have a bigger vision, either.”
Nancy Fehr is 20 and grew up in the Picture Butte area. She took the YEP in October. She is currently employed by the company where she did her work experience with the program.
Fehr’s story of supporting her family is a common one, she says. Particularly in certain areas of Mennonite culture.
At 14, she got her first job working with her mother and younger siblings. At the time, she was allowed to keep five per cent of her paycheques. When she turned 16, she was given a “raise” and allowed to keep 10 per cent.
At 18, she was entitled to 20 per cent of her paycheques, though she was not allowed to spend any of that money, because it all had to go into a savings account. Her parents kept the rest.
“My older brother did the same thing,” she said. “He thinks it’s awesome.”
“For me, I just felt like I was stuck in this tiny little community. And I could work, but I wasn’t allowed to use any of the money I earned.”
Just before she turned 19, Fehr told her parents she was going to keep her paycheques, and she wasn’t going to pay them anymore.
“They were not happy about that at all,” she said.
Llewelyn-Jones said while children are expected to support the family unit in some cultures in southern Alberta, the practice was found across a number of different groups.
In most cases, program organizers were seeing working parents who were unable to make ends meet and relied on help from their children.
For children supporting their families, focus can shift when it comes to future prospects.
Llewelyn-Jones spoke about a student who had come to the Taber area as a single mother with one parent living in the community. The student was set up in a housing program and listed as a client with the food bank.
However, the student was facing a number of additional hurdles placed on her by her family.
“On the days she would go to the food bank, she would go home and fill her cupboards. And then her parents would come food shopping in her cupboards,” said Llewelyn-Jones. “Of course, that was very disconcerting.”
“We found we weren’t just coaching and teaching how to get out there and get a job,” she said. “It was more about how you get out there and find a job that will sustain your family.”
“It was an alarming scenario that we didn’t think could be part of the program.”
Fehr said her parents had these rules in place because that was how they were raised, and that they didn’t know any differently. In fact, it wasn’t until Fehr was exposed to a wider world through her first full-time job that she realized there was another way as well.
“All my friends did the same thing,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones. I got to keep a percentage of (her pay.)”
Fehr was homeschooled for part of her life, and her parents did not enroll her in high school because they were worried about the influence of other children.
In spite of being able to accomplish much in the past several years, such as earning her GED, she still feels like she has been set back.
“I just have so much I still have to learn,” she said. “And knowing that you’re further behind than everyone else your age makes you wonder if you are a failure.”
“In Mennonite culture, school is never really encouraged,” she said.
When Fehr earned her GED, her parents were supportive. She said many young people do not get that support.
“I know some, if they want to go further in their education, they have to do it themselves. And they have to convince their parents that it is the right thing to do. If not, they just get married at 18 and start having kids right away.”
“They ended up going to work at 15, and now they’ve found there was never a career path,” said Llewelyn-Jones. “It was just a job. We were well-equipped to deal with normal barriers. But for this barrier, there’s no lesson plan.”
Fehr said that lack of forward vision has affected how she sees her life moving.
“In school, we were always thinking about what we were going to be when we grow up,” Fehr said. “But my thoughts, since I was a child, were only that I was going to get married and have kids when I grow up, because that’s what I’ve been taught.”
“But I know that’s not where my life is headed anymore.”