Tipping the Scale

Featured in the ‘Heads Together’ section of the MHF 2017-2018 Annual Report.

Success is in his job title, but All in for Youth success coach Ben Hofs is after more for his students: joy. 

Ask Ben Hofs what his number 1 priority is and he’ll tell you: investing in strong meaningful relationships. “It’s my driving force. The how of my work is just meat and potatoes.”

A success coach at Eastglen High School for 8 years–2 of them as part of an All in for Youth team–he runs the school’s Breakfast Club. Once a simple meal program, Ben has helped transform the club into a haven for students who feel like they’re on the fringe and don’t know where they belong.

It’s a place to feel comfortable; somewhere teens can play a casual board game or talk to an adult who cares about them.

Students describe the Breakfast Club as “a place for people who don’t have a place.” A sign outside the room playfully pictures the original ragtag bunch from the film of the same name.

In the years before All in for Youth came to the school–what Ben calls the ‘Wild West days’–he was the only extra source of support for the students, and he now jokes that he made it all work with “duct tape, string, and gumption.”

“We had to live with the fact that the net we were using to catch kids falling through the cracks couldn’t catch them all.”

School staff would often encounter barriers they hadn’t anticipated when referring youth to professionals outside the school: “We’d ask a student to go meet an adult they had never met, take multiple bus routes to a building they had never been to—with bus fare they probably didn’t have—and then be surprised when they didn’t go.”

They had good intentions and a vision, but not the means to realize it. Not so, anymore. 

Now we’re fully funded. It’s dramatically impacted the culture at the schools we’re in. It’s changed how big we can think, and how well we can respond. I would compare our former state to an army hospital triage and now we’re like a community health centre.

With the support of All in for Youth, all the necessary support workers are under one roof, collaborating to respond to their students’ needs. As one of two success coaches on the team, Ben’s role looks very different day to day. “Some days I’m a social worker, some days I’m a crisis worker, some days I’m a friend; other days, I’m just a guy moving furniture.”

Ben found himself playing the latter role when one of his students–who lives on his own–needed to move apartments. The problem was, he didn’t have a truck. Ben got some friends together and spent a day as a mover. “It was a gong show–that kind of thing always is–but there was something special about sitting in the packed truck at the end of the day, heading over to his new place. You can’t recreate it, that’s real-time action, responding to the needs of students.”

It’s a perfect example of how building relationships pays off in the long-term. “That student now knows he can come to me when he needs help, because he knows I’ll come through.”

Ben recently supported a student during an 87-day stay at Alberta Hospital Edmonton (AHE). Before attending Eastglen for grade 10,Patrick* hadn’t come to regular school in 6 years; he had spent most of his life moving in and out of supportive care. Struggle was common at home–he had experienced significant trauma as a result of his tumultuous relationship with his mother–and over grade 11 Christmas break, he was kicked out of the house, forced to spend his nights in a homeless shelter.

Patrick, says Ben, is the most kind-hearted kid he knows. “He’s the kind of kid who stops and picks up garbage on the ground, or declines gifts so others he believes more in need can have them.”

But after he had to leave home, he spiralled, experiencing a psychotic break that led him to trespass and get committed to the hospital. “His life disintegrated in a matter of days.” Patrick got transferred to AHE, and because he had just turned 18, he was placed in the adult ward. “He understood that he had fallen apart and needed help, but it was really sad to see him in open units with adults with severe mental illness.”

Because Patrick didn’t have a stable home to return to, the hospital couldn’t release him and continued to hold him. Patrick gave permission for the hospital to reach out and let the school know where he was. Ben was allowed to visit. He promptly encouraged AHE to allow Patrick to attend school during the day so he could achieve normalcy. “It’s not normal for an 18 year old to live in a hospital, not surrounded by his peers,” says Ben.

After 2 weeks, the staff at AHE arranged for him to be transported to school during the weekdays. Patrick began to do better than ever; “he was thriving.”

Ben spent time at the hospital on weekends when he could. One memorable afternoon, while playing crib with Patrick, a lady on the ward asked to play. Patrick, demonstrating the generosity Ben says he’s known for, instantly pulled out a chair, remarking, “of course.”

“That’s what it looks like to be a success coach,” says Ben. “We are working with dynamic human beings with dynamic lives, so sometimes work is playing crib on a Saturday at AHE.”

“It was the most interesting crib game I ever played,” he adds.

Over the next few months, Ben continued to visit Patrick at AHE, helping him apply for income support for learners. On the day Patrick was finally released, able to move into a new apartment with the funding he was able to secure, he told Ben: “I thought about taking off so many times, but you think it’s important that I finish school and I trusted you. Now I’m glad I did.”

Says Ben, “I’m glad I was afforded the opportunity to play a mentorship role in his life. In a sense, Patrick fell through the cracks, but people responded so he didn’t stay there.”

“That’s why he’s going to graduate.”

Helping students overcome such barriers is a key part of his job. Where Ben feels he can expand to play a unique role in the life of a youth is through fun.

“I think that adventure is really fundamental to a human being. It’s not just a want; it’s a need,” Ben says.

He organizes fieldtrips for the kids, like a recent day trip to Drumheller, or a forthcoming camping trip to Jasper where kids will get to hike, sleep in tents, and cook food over an open fire. Sometimes he gets to bring students to Oilers games, where they share nachos.

Sometimes I think we get really caught up in the idea of mental health care as this triage process where we figure out what’s wrong and try to treat it. We forget to incorporate positive experiences. Helping someone heal is not just addressing trauma, but also adding joy to their lives.

It’s about tipping the balance towards wellness. Ben uses a playful video from Alberta Family Wellness to illustrate this to the kids. In the video, a resilience scale tips left under red blocks (negative experiences) and tips right when loaded with green (positive experiences). Ben tells his students that his job as their success coach is to put more green blocks on their scale, so positives outweigh the negatives in their lives.

“Mental health is not a separate entity, it’s infused into everything we do,” explains Ben. “We’re taking real life and creating change in it; being preventative, not just responsive”

All in for Youth staff are able to create this change thanks to your support. And it doesn’t end here.  Ben believes that how we support our kids now will have a lot to do with the resilience of our community in the future. “If our students are comfortable talking about their mental health now–and because of a concerted effort to change the conversation they are–imagine 20 years down the road. We have yet to reap the full benefits.”

“At the end of the day, if I can pour some love into a youth, it’s a good day. No matter what happens in the future, they’ll always have that moment where someone gave them love. Kids remember those things. That matters.”

*name has been changed for privacy

All in for Youth’s success coaches are staffed by project partners The Family Centre. Learn more about what they do here

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