A pair of students from The University of Winnipeg who entered the Inner-City Work Study program have not only been rewarded with fulfilling work placements but also discovered new paths to travel post-graduation.
The work-integrated learning experience, which is offered by the Urban and Inner-City Studies Department, and funded by the City of Winnipeg and RBC, is a 15-week work and study program placing Indigenous and non-Indigenous students with inner-city organizations. It provides an opportunity to acquire invaluable practical and on-the-job knowledge and put classroom learning in practice; connecting theories, applying strategies, and using tools gathered through coursework.
For Maiah Feely, the program came as a recommendation from a friend and UWinnipeg graduate who majored in Urban and Inner-City Studies. An arts student, Feely was looking for a way to broaden her horizons and gain real-world knowledge.
“I had spent the previous summers of my adult life working at summer camps and I wanted to have a different experience, maybe not working with kids,” Feely said. “I wanted to do something completely different, and I thought this work study sounded perfect because I can get some credits done and I can have a job doing something different.”
It’s a completely eye-opening experience…When you come from a place of privilege, you don’t think of all the barriers there are.
Among Feely’s first-choice placements were Mount Carmel Clinic and West Central Women’s Resource Centre, but circumstance – and happenstance – resulted in her landing with O.P.K. (Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin), a grassroots and community-driven organization offering services such as mental health consultation, services for gang-affected youth and families, and crisis response, among others. Knowing nothing about the organization, only that a family friend had ties and highly recommended she give it a chance, Feely dove in head first.
“I love the placement,” she said. “I’ve learned so much. It’s a completely eye-opening experience. You can read about poverty, you hear stories of people living in poverty or people who’ve been homeless or are homeless, but when you actually see it and work with it all day and every day, it is mind blowing. When you come from a place of privilege, you don’t think of all the barriers there are.”
Helping youth at risk
Much like Feely, Business student Harold Memita expounds the Inner-City Work Study program’s benefits. Memita, who joined because he believed in its personal and societal value, set his sights on placement with Ndinawemaaganag Endaawaad Inc., otherwise known as Ndinawe. The not-for-profit’s goal is to help at-risk youth in Winnipeg, providing them with shelter, education, recreation, and support, among other services.
“The place that I work at, it’s called the Safe House, which is kind of like short-term housing for the kids that need a safe place to stay,” Memita said. “What I do is work with the kids. We have 16 kids in the house who come from different backgrounds and have different stories, and we pretty much help them with whatever they need. For example, if they need homework, I help them with that. It’s just kind of being a mentor to them.”
The work within the inner-city goes beyond the personal gains, however, as one of the program’s goals is to actively engage in a process of reconciliation.
“Being part of it, even in a small aspect of it, I think that I’m making some sort of changes,” Memita said. “And hopefully down the road it can be a platform and could bring awareness to the importance of inner-city community development. It is also a good humbling experience for me to see on hand the things we learn in class and apply it in the work place.”
Feely echoed that sentiment, explaining how the program has provided her a way to see and explain the inner-city communities in a new light. “A lot of people when talking about work within the inner city, they talk really about trauma, and doing this has really reminded me to view people as whole people, not just their trauma,” she said. “People are not just their trauma. They have a whole story, and we need to listen to their story and see them as real, whole people and not just the sad things that have happened to them.”
Prior to the spread of COVID-19, the program was slated to run through the summer, but the enactment of pandemic-related health measures resulted in the postponement of work study to the fall semester. Its concurrence with fall semester is a first for the program, but one that hasn’t lessened its impact on those involved or the organizations with which students have worked.
“It’s a boost energy-wise,” said Mitch Bourbonniere, who runs O.P.K. “And it brings a great sense of hope that there are young people that are not only going to take over this work but take it to the next level. It’s really awesome, really fascinating, and I love it.”
So, too, do Feely and Memita, so much so that it has set both on paths they hope to pursue moving forward. For his part, Memita said his experience has led him to start thinking about opportunities for work with not-for-profits post-graduation.
“That’s something that I think it’s not for the money. It’s for helping community thrive and to give back to the community I grew up in,” he said.
Meanwhile, Feely, who majors in psychology, has gone from unsure of what her future holds to settling into a part-time permanent position at Mount Carmel Clinic, a door that opened as a result of her connection through O.P.K.
“I’m an outreach worker there and it’s all because of Mitch (Bourbonniere), who runs O.P.K.,” Feely said. “He has allowed me to assist him in many of the programs he runs. I have been thoroughly enjoying the work and working with Mitch. I can see myself working in this field for a while and I will continue to work with Mitch for as long as he will have me. I am very thankful to the University for allowing me to participate in such a wonderful program.”