Laughter. Gentle encouragement. And then, a full-body thud.

A participant has been thrown to the ground. He gets up and adjusts his Japanese classical ju-jutsu belt, prepared for it to happen again.

We’re in the Urban Native Youth Association’s dojo, a multi-purpose space in the Downtown Eastside. On weekday evenings, youth stop by the dojo to work out and learn personal fitness, yoga and martial arts. (In Japanese, a “dojo” is a room or hall where martial arts are taught.)

But the dojo is about more than fitness. Many urban Native youth live in poverty, and often lack job skills and access to education, training and community support. The dojo is a positive space in which to learn new skills, make friends, and receive subtle guidance and mentorship from staff and volunteers.

“Youth come here because they want to be here,” says Amy Johnson, program coordinator for the Aboriginal Youth First sports and recreation program. “They spend hours and hours of their own time in programs doing good things for themselves and for the communities they’re a part of.”

With support from Central City Foundation donors, UNYA recently completed some important renovations that will help ensure the space continues to be safe, healthy and accessible for all participants, staff and volunteers.

Central City Foundation and UNYA build hope in the inner city

Youth worker Nikki Walser working out in the dojo demonstrates a kettlebell swing

Thanks to CCF neighbours, a panic bar was installed at the dojo’s fire exit, and, upstairs, an industrial-sized sink now serves as a cleaning station for the Overly Creative Minds arts programming. UNYA also received temporary flooring for the well-loved dojo. The firm but pliable foam material covers the concrete floor, making all of the fitness programming possible.

“We’ll do wresting, Brazilian jujitsu, Japanese ju-jutsu,” Johnson says. “It requires youth not only knowing how to fall properly and taking good care of themselves, but they need something good to fall on. We’re based on concrete floors right now—we wouldn’t be able to offer any of that programming without the temporary flooring you see here.”

The floor tiles cost nearly $50 a square, even at a wholesale price, which means covering the entire floor would be an expensive project for the organization to take on alone.

Nikki Walser, a youth worker who is Anishnawbek on her mother’s side, says the temporary flooring has transformed the space. “Youth come here and know exactly what we’ve got going on and what it’s about,” she says.

Walser and Johnson have worked together for more than five years. Together with some loyal volunteers, they provide the youth who drop in to the dojo with a wonderful consistency.

They explain that the programming has low barriers to participation, with Aboriginal youth ages 11 to 24 invited to participate for free. All programs take place after work and school hours. Youth can bring their children along, if they have them. They can borrow extra gym clothes, if they need to.

Stephen, 23, lives in the neighbourhood. He’s been coming to the dojo for four years. A dedicated participant, he’s submitted an application to become a volunteer when he “ages out” of the program at 24.

“It’s impacted my life a lot,” says Stephen. Before he found out about the fitness space at UNYA, he says he was physically active but lacked guidance and direction. He’s learned a lot here, especially from the personal trainer who comes in on Thursdays. “I can take those skills and use them at home and share them with peers in the gym on my own time, as well as when we do fitness routines here,” he says.

Stephen is now completing his diploma in child and youth peer counselling, and says he puts the skills he’s learning in college to practical use on the mats.

For these younger neighbours, the help from Central City Foundation donors has made a substantive difference in their lives.

“Youth really take ownership of the space,” Johnson says. “There’s a real sense of belonging over the space and the equipment that’s here.”

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