Karen Dueck has gone from serving breakfast to serving the needs of children and youth in the community – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Back in 2006, Dueck was working as a server in a restaurant to help support her family. She didn’t think going back to school was an option for her until a friend told her about the Youth Recreation Activity Worker certificate program at Red River College.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was too good to be true,” says Dueck, whose two children were in their early teens when she entered the 10-month program, and who had experience doing respite work with a child with special needs.
“I had always enjoyed working with children and youth, but it wasn’t until I heard about this program that I really thought of it as a career. To that point I was just working to work, and to put food on the table.”
Designed to prepare young people to work with inner city children and youth to provide healthy recreational activities, the Youth Recreation Activity Worker program is offered at no cost to qualifying students aged 18 to 29. Dueck, who was 28 at the time, took the plunge and applied. At the end of the program she completed a summer work practicum as an Activity Worker with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Winnipeg, which partners with RRC to offer the program jointly.
The rest is history: Dueck worked her way up the ladder and after just seven years is now the organization’s Assistant Director of Programs, overseeing five of the city’s 10 Clubs.
As the leading youth service agency in Winnipeg, the Boys & Girls Clubs serve about 4,500 children and youth each year, providing a safe, supportive place where they can experience new opportunities, overcome barriers, build positive relationships, and develop confidence and life skills through a variety of free, enriched and after-school programs, Dueck explains.
“When I started the program, I wasn’t sure where it was going to lead me. It really prepares you for how much you’ll need to give of yourself in this field, and provides all the supports for you to be successful in the course and later on, working in the community,” she said. “Once I learned all about what the Boys & Girls Clubs does, and the impact it makes in our community, our city and with our youth, I really felt connected to its mission and values and I knew it was right for me.”
While her management position, which she has had for three years, means she’s doing more paperwork these days, Dueck still takes the time to make hands-on visits to the Clubs. She says the most rewarding part of her various roles over the years has been when she gets to interact directly with youth, and to see first-hand the Clubs’ impact on the community.
“When I was an Activity Worker, there was one boy who was about 13 who was very disengaged, closed off and guarded. I slowly built a relationship with him, got to know him, and found out about the struggles he was facing at home and in the community with violence and gangs,” Dueck says.
“Over time, we broke down those walls with him, got him involved in programming and from there into a leadership and mentorship role with our younger youth. It’s incredible to see that change and just what building a relationship with a child can do. By just giving them your time to show them you care and are interested in what they have to say, you show them that what they say and do is important, and that you value them. Every day we hear stories like this, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I got into this work and why I continue to do this.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Winnipeg is constantly growing and changing its programming to meet the needs of the community, Dueck explains. The organization recently redeveloped “Play Cool”, a program that encourages children 6 to 11 to engage in physical activities after school, learning and practicing fundamental movement skills like running, jumping, throwing and balancing through fun games – to help them build the endurance, flexibility and strength that can lead to a life-long commitment to their health.
While she didn’t have any formal education or work experience with children and youth before starting the program, Dueck says she has always been around youth, between raising her own children as a young mother, providing respite services for a special needs child, and interacting with her 18 nieces and nephews.
“I think my natural ability with kids, my care and compassion, and just wanting to make an impact, combined with everything I learned in the program, gave me those tangible skills and made this career a perfect fit for me. The program definitely changed my life: I have a career, I enjoy the work I do, and I really feel like I have direction. I get up every day and instead of dreading going to work like I used to, now I go into work with a smile on my face, and it’s still there at the end of the day.”
Dueck occasionally shares her story with the children and youth she meets at the Clubs, as well as with new students in the Youth Rec. program, for which she serves as Chair of the advisory committee.
“I’m proud to tell my story of being a young mother, and getting the opportunity to go to college, and do well and develop a career and be successful. I think it speaks volumes to young parents, and people that have many barriers in their lives,” she says.
“With the right programs out there and the right supports, anyone can be successful.”