After 30 years in the field, Executive Director of youth program still energized
BY NATE SMELLE The VOICE
For most his working life, Mike Taylor has been working to improve the lives of children and youth in the communities where he has lived. Though it has become his passion and his vocation, it was not the original career path he chose to follow.
In fact, it was a chance encounter with an advertisement on a passing subway car he noticed while working as a sales representative for a company in Toronto in the early 1980s that changed his life’s direction.
Taylor credits the flashy ad for the organization Operation Springboard as the first spark igniting his interest in working with youth. After volunteering with the group, he said his appreciation for helping others began to grow.
“I started volunteering with them and then pretty soon after I found myself working in a halfway house in front of the jail in Toronto. It turned into a part-time job, then I was a full-time staff, and then next thing I knew I was a manager supervising programs for Operation Springboard all over Ontario.”
Continuing his work with Operation Springboard, Taylor moved to Niagara in 1990. In 2002 he and his wife Nancie had their son Elijah and settled into their lives in Pelham to raise their family.
In 2009, Taylor took on his present role of Executive Director at Youth Resources Niagara. In this role, Taylor says he gets up in the morning and heads into work—the David S. Horne youth home, on Hwy 20 in Fonthill— not knowing exactly what to expect of the day ahead. While admittedly this can be a challenge for him, he says it is also one of the things he enjoys most about his career helping youth.
“It’s one of those jobs that’s very dynamic and always changing,” Taylor says.
“It’s never the same thing twice so you don’t become subject to the boredom of a routine. I certainly enjoy working with kids. The vibrancy of that has kept me going and it will be 30 years this year.”
Youth Resources Niagara facilitates two residential programs out of their Fonthill location — the David S. Horne program and the Wagner Home program. The David S. Horne program serves male youth who have been charged or convicted of criminal offences under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The Wagner Home program serves male youth who have been placed in residential care by Family and Children Services (FACS) in Niagara. Overseeing both programs, Taylor says he is privileged to have the chance to get to know the young men who reside there.
“They are a great bunch of kids and we run the place like a home,” Taylor says.
“We make it a home-like environment where there is a structure that they don’t typically have in their own circumstances.”
Taylor says the programs are part of two innovative pilot projects taking place in the province. The difference between these two projects is that the Fonthill programs focus on education and the pilot project underway in Oshawa focuses on employment. Previously, he says the court system would determine where the youth would serve out their sentence and when they were ready to leave. The new program allows for a more customized approach, he says.
“The innovative part is that now kids come in on probation and we are able to tailor and figure out what their case management needs are and what their structures are going to be,” explains Taylor.
“Now their resources are dictated first and foremost by their willingness to continue and stay, because it’s a voluntary program, and more importantly guided by when they are ready to move on to the next best step available to them.”
Currently, 50 percent of the youth who are participating in the pilot project in Fonthill are from Niagara, however the program is open to youth from as far away as Brantford. Taylor says the youth who are accepted into the residence need to display a willingness to be there and participate in the educational component of the program.
“We are really heavy on the idea that we want this to be completely driven by the decision of the kids,” he says.
“We don’t want this to be a coerced discussion with the probation officer who says they must stay here. We want to stay away from the old detention-based mentality. They need to know that it is entirely their decision to be here.”
There are 16 placements between the two homes. The young men at the Wagner Home are integrated into the local school system, while the youth at the David S. Horne Home participate in customized educational programming in-house that is designed to meet their individual needs.
“It takes some time for them to develop their trust and their ability to accept what we have to offer them,” Taylor says.
“They need to feel that what you give them is valuable, and they are not going to do that until they trust you. That’s not necessarily you as an individual it depends upon who strong your team is.”
The team at Youth Resources Niagara is large, Taylor says. Each home has eight full-time front-line workers and a manager as well as 20 to 25 additional part-time support workers. The services they offer are not exclusive to the two residences, he says. They also have a community program that provides support and services for approximately 50 youth who live in the community.
The success of their programs is dependent upon the youth’s desire to participate, says Taylor. The interactions between the staff and the youth serve to make their programs even more effective for the residents themselves, and for future participants.
It is empowering for the youth, he says, when they realize they are helping others by engaging with staff and participating in the program.
“It satisfies us to see that we are helping kids,” says Taylor.
“It’s rewarding to us when we see these young men accomplishing milestones. It doesn’t matter about the arguments you may have with them if they come in late for curfew, or other things like that you expect with teenagers, when you look at the broader perspective and see what they are accomplishing it makes you feel good about the work you do.”
Taylor’s work with youth extends beyond his professional life.
He is an active member of the Church of the Holy Trinity and he is involved with the Niagara Region’s Homelessness committee.
As a Rotarian, he is also the Chair of the Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Program committee. Allowing him to work with youth in a different manner, Taylor says his work with Rotary is inspirational.
“It has been a thrill for me the past three years working with youth from around the world,” he says.
“Every year a new batch of students comes in and there are 25 new people from other countries. We all learn so much, it’s a reciprocal learning experience. They all come with their own stories and they all have their eyes wide open and want to learn about us. It’s very energizing.”