YMCA Newcomer Youth Pathway to Belonging Project


When Ibtisam Saeed first landed in Canada eight years ago after leaving Saudi Arabia, her immediate reaction was, “This is a cold country!” But the cool, damp spring of Waterloo Region was the least of the 16-year-old’s worries.

“I wanted to make friends and fit in,” she says now. 

But how? Saeed didn’t speak English, and everything about Canada seemed overwhelming and indecipherable. That is, until a YMCA staff member visited her English language class and convinced her to attend a newcomer youth leadership group where she could meet other newcomer teens.

Saeed tried it, played games, made friends—then wanted more. Today, after years of volunteering and working at the YMCA, Saeed is a success story. She’s the team lead for youth programs for the YMCA’s of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo.

Although her position has given her a career, giving back to the community has given her something just as vital: a deep sense of belonging and a connection to the larger community.

“When I give more, I feel I belong more,” she says.

Saeed is one of the inspirations behind a new YMCA project launched in 2015: the Newcomer Youth Pathway to Belonging Project. The project received over $130,000 in support from The KWCF’s Community Grants Program.

Unlike a place-based program that runs for, say, ten weeks and then ends, this project helps newcomer youth between 12 and 19 years old create a relevant pathway through services and programs.

For instance, a community development specialist signs a youth up for a leadership course at a neighbourhood centre. Afterward, if the youth says she loves drama, she’s connected with a theatre program. And so on. The specialist might even attend on the first day, to help read registration forms, offer payment guidance, or even provide bus tickets.

“It’s about finding out what youth are interested in and passionate about, and connecting the dots,” says Beth King, Director of Development for the YMCA’s of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo.

To date, 53 youth have been engaged, and the community partners’ response has been overwhelmingly positive. King says she’s convinced the program will lead to long-term benefits, not only for the youth themselves, but the entire community.

“When a person has a sense of belonging, they’re able to tap into the other things that make them successful,” she explains. “When they can achieve their goals, they can reach their potential."