Youth Who Are Caregivers Learn to Be Inclusive Leaders

3cWhen Larry Winter participated in Facilitating and Mentoring Inclusive Leadership in March 2011, he  quickly realized that he is already an experienced and skilled Inclusive Leader. And, when a fellow participant gave a presentation about supports for youth who are caregivers. Larry also realized that he is a former Youth Caregiver who has  “…been there, done that, and made it through.”

Part of what Larry means about making it through is that fifty years ago during his teens, he made it through several years of shouldering more and more of the responsibilities involved in caring for his younger siblings. As he jumped from childhood to adulthood, there was no time left over for playing sports, hanging out with friends, or sometimes even going to school. The other part of what Larry means about making it through is that by becoming a care-giver, he became an Inclusive Leader at an early age. He not only developed many skills involved in running a household and caring for children, he also learned Inclusive Leadership skills such as daring to be different, compassion and standing up for others.

DSC_1052These teenage experiences led Larry to a life-long passion for human rights and social justice. As soon as he retired from his thirty-two year career in the military police, he began giving back to his community by volunteering and working with the Comox Valley Community Justice Centre. He spent fifteen years working with first offenders and earned certifications/qualifications as a Human Services Worker, Educational Assistant, Addictions Support Worker and in Conflict Resolution. In 2011, the Justice Centre sent him to participate in a week of Inclusive Leadership education where he developed an action plan to set up a Youth Caregiver Program in Comox. He pitched this idea to the Justice Centre, found funding and is now in his fourth year of supporting Youth Caregivers in the Comox Valley.

IMG_1203 (2)One of Larry’s goals in finding and supporting youth who are caregivers is to give them a strong message that they are not alone. Research has been done in England, Australia, the United States and the five other communities in Canada that have youth care-givers programs. From this research we know that in a typical high school of 1000 students, 100 to 200 of these young people are providing personal care for a family member such as caring for a parent who is ill or injured, supporting a sibling who is growing up with disabilities, or being a substitute parent. They may be administering medication, changing dressings, caring for siblings, acting as interpreters, or working at a job in order to help pay household bills. Although every youth caregiver has their own story, they tend to share the experience of invisibility, isolation and exclusion from the typical activities of adolescence. Youth caregivers tend to keep their work hidden out of a practical fear that authorities will step in and break up the family. Another reason is fear that peers will put them down, leave them out, or make fun of what they are doing. Larry offers a support network of friendship, acceptance, understanding, information, skills, and appropriate responses from educators , service providers and peers.


Can you find the youth who are caregivers in this photo? Although there are at least two, their care-giving identities are often unrecognized and unacknowledged.

Larry’s second goal is to educate people about youth caregivers. There is a common misconception that youth care-giving is a social problem that needs to be fixed or done away with. However, from the perspective of an Inclusive Leader, youth caregivers develop many different gifts that enrich their families and their communities. Larry explains, “I know first hand that these kids are not socially disadvantaged. I know they are learning about responsibility, about relationships, and about reality. They are gaining depth to their self-image and sense of worth. Some have the most deep, moving, life-lasting and rewarding experiences ever imagined.” Larry’s work is supported by a Steering Committee made up of professionals who work in fields such as social services, health care, law, education, and government agencies. These people are available as resources for the youth carers, and they function as points of connection with the many institutions and individuals connected to the issue.

8bLarry’s third goal is to help youth care-givers become better caregivers. If a youth caregiver becomes better at helping the family member they are caring for have a better life, then they have more time to devote to their own life, One part of becoming a better care-giver is to learn to form circles of support and delegate responsibilities instead of trying to do everything alone. Another part of becoming a better care-giver is managing stress. Young caregivers are prone to anxiety, depression, and anger due to overwork and isolation. One way to manage stress is to be recognized, acknowledged and appreciated. Another way to manage stress is to be supported to organize responsibilities so that the youth care-giver can manage to stay in school and can even have some time off to just be a kid. The more support available from their families, peers, educators and human service providers, the more likely they will develop resilience and have hope for their own futures. Larry’s main strategies for supporting youth to become better care-givers are individual relationship building, advocacy, and opportunities to get together with other youth care-givers.

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