This is why, starting in September, Catholic Family Services (CFS) and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) will launch a new program called Teens Healthy Relationships.
The outreach program will include workshops to teach teens about building healthy relationships, dating, gender roles, domestic abuse and violence.
“Many times we hear (from our clients), ‘If this information was available or was just reinforced when I was younger, it would have made a lot of difference,’ “ said Carol Soares, counsellor and program co-ordinator at CFS Toronto.
“High school is really the years where they are learning a lot from their peers, they’re exposed to a lot more in our society and in our social world... The goal is early intervention and prevention.”
Soares said the program is meant to plant the seed for healthy relationships, especially for teens who might already be exposed to domestic violence and abusive relationships.
“It’s nice to reach those students because, as the social workers have noted, these are issues that they are already seeing and are already talking to these students about,” said Soares. “Some of them don’t necessarily have the most stable family backgrounds and so they’re the ones that probably need the information the most.”
However, Soares emphasized that although alternative schools and schools in low-income neighbourhoods are probably going to benefit most from the program, it’s not necessarily their target.
“With domestic violence and women abuse, it crosses all religions, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities and all that, so that’s not going to be the one defining factor,” she said.
The workshops will deal with identifying myths and misconceptions around dating and relationships. It will address important issues of domestic abuse and violence. It will also provide students with opportunities to ask their own questions.
“There’s a lot of debate that comes up (during the workshops),” said Soares. “There are sometimes students that will share their own experiences of abuse... Or someone else who has a very strong opinion on a particular topic.”
Soares said the important part of the discussion is to create a safe space where students can explore these issues within the context of their own life experiences.
The program is created to be flexible because every school will have different needs. The curriculum can be presented to any class in Grades 9 to 12.
“It really crosses the gambit,” said Soares. “We really leave it to the school to say ‘This would fit really well with our health class right now, or our religion class or English literature.’ ”
The basis of the program’s curriculum has existed for a long time. Soares has been conducting these workshops for schools across the city as part of CFS’s Women Helping Women program.
Part of the program involves community outreach in parishes, local Catholic Women’s League meetings, as well as schools. From January to June this year, Soares presented to about 200 students across the Greater Toronto Area.
By partnering with the TCDSB, Soares is hoping to expand the program and prioritize the outreach across the school board.
“We’re making this a bigger focus,” she said. “So now when I go out and do the presentations, most of the time, the school social worker will also be present. We’ll be able to work together and there’s a continuation of resources and support if something should come out.”
Soares hopes to visit at least two schools per month during this school year. This pilot year will determine where the greatest needs will be within the school board and where the project can expand.
One idea Soares would like to add to the project is to train peer ambassadors in the schools.