In spring 2014, two youth groups from Montreal, Quebec and Corner Brook, Newfoundland discovered Canada in ways they never thought possible through the Youth Exchange Canada Program. We sat down with YMCA Montreal group leader (and YMCA Alternative Suspension Program coordinator) Valérie Dagenais to talk about how her group had the experience of a lifetime.
YMCA Exchanges: How did you get involved with the program and get the process started in terms of getting youth together?
Valerie: We recruited students who were available during the proposed date (April 2014). Many were excited to hear that the trip was to Newfoundland, but were a little hesitant to commit to the process when the found out that the trip would actually be an exchange trip and that some financial commitment/fundraising would be involved, including the obligation to participate in volunteer and community projects. In total, we had 12 youth who participated in the exchange from Montreal, made up of individuals from various YMCA Montreal programs (Alternate Suspension, Passeport, YIP) We had several meetings to plan out the exchange and also to figure out how we were going to raise money. There were several fundraising activities that the youth decided to do themselves, such as bake sales (the kids baked treats to sell using the kitchen at YMCA du Parc), and a 50/50 draw. All of the activities raised money towards the cost of group outings during our hosting part of the exchange.
YMCA Exchanges: Did the youth make contact before the exchange started?
V: Yes. They had a couple of Skype conversations, where they asked each other questions to find out more about where they were going, like “are there stores in Corner Brook?” and “what’s the weather like there?”. They also used Facebook and email to connect and talk before and after the exchange.
YMCA Exchanges: Were there any cultural shocks experienced by the students?
V: Definitely. We went to a Montreal Alouettes (CFL) game with our twins, and they were quite overwhelmed and impressed at the sheer about of people and the atmosphere of the stadium–it was nothing like they had ever seen before. To give you a comparison: the stadium seats 20,000 people. The total population of Corner Brook is 10,000 people. Little things like taking the subway/public transit around Montreal was a new experience for them as well.
As for our own students, most of them had only heard of Newfoundland from school and had seen a few pictures; they were surprised that such a different place from what they know could exist within the same country. At first, they complained that “there’s nothing to do!” or “there’s so many babies!”, but eventually they learned to appreciate the slowed down pace of life, and the very pleasant natural environment. They even marveled at the fact that complete strangers would say hello as they walked by. I also think that the aspect of getting out of the big city was a big factor for some of the youth since they don’t always have the opportunity to do that. They realized that though Corner Brook is very different from Montreal, it’s a beautiful place to live in, and young people who live there are just like them; they experience many of the same situations and feelings.
YMCA Exchanges: Did the youth learn anything new about Canada?
V: For sure! Most of the students in both groups were immersed in an English-only or French-only speaking environment for the first time in their lives, so there was definitely a language exchange happening as they interacted. For the Montreal students seeing Newfoundland–and the Atlantic Ocean–for the first time was a live geography lesson for them, especially since we all realized just how FAR Newfoundland is from Quebec (we took two planes to get there). We also had some great cultural experiences, like the famous traditional Kitchen Party, where traditional music is played and those who are brave enough “kiss the cod”.
YMCA Exchanges: What types of community service projects did you do during your exchange?
V: We did a few projects during both parts of the exchange in Montreal and Corner Brook. In Montreal, we worked in a community centre helping to sort books and second-hand clothing for those in need. In Corner Brook, we helped to clean up a local nature hike and bike trail, and we painted a colourful mural in the youth ward of a local psychiatric institute. Everyone enjoyed the work we did, and found way to have fun while doing it.
YMCA Exchanges: Would you recommend this program to others?
Yes! For youth, it’s a way to see how other young people in Canada can live in different ways, yet share the same experiences. They witness different styles of communities, interact with people from different walks of life and also get to see parts of Canada they never would have otherwise.