Mardi Daley first came across LOFT Community Services, a Toronto-based organization that supports youth, adults and seniors, as she sought services herself. She soon became a Peer Support Worker to provide care and mentorship to youth dealing with housing, mental health, and substance use matters. “I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if they had given up on me” she says, “and now I feel confident that I can be a changemaker in my community.”
Mardi deeply understands what many young people go through. She herself experienced barriers of low income and had to live in emergency shelter a few times throughout her youth. She also experienced the life-changing effects of getting the right help at the right time. “I got a Big Sister when I was 7,” she explains, “and without her as a positive role model, I’m not sure what would have happened to me.” Later, Mardi was able to use extracurricular programs to enable and motivate her to go to university and put her in a position to give back. “I knew that, should I want to step into a mentorship role, I would have to commit 110% of my energy towards others,” she says. “This part is really crucial because vulnerable people, youth especially, want to feel a sense of community belonging and empathy.”
Mardi’s peer-to-peer youth work is critical to LOFT’s youth-friendly approach. “One of the most important parts of peer work is being a consistent face for other youth to see in the space,” she says. In many other ways, Mardi also acts as a youth voice for the organization. Her most recent project is the beginning of a survival guide for youth that addresses topics like life skills, housing strategies, and healthy living. She also attended the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ national conference to speak to the importance of peer approaches to working with youth experiencing homelessness.
Mardi attributes the success of her peer work to the power of shared experience. “We understand what it feels like to be stigmatized, the feeling of vulnerability involved in asking for help and importantly, the rollercoaster of recovery,” she says. Knowing that someone has been in the same situation can help a young person believe that their own story will be met with empathy. Mardi stresses how peer approaches can go hand-in-hand with other kinds of support and service for youth.
“I hope that, with an increase of the visibility of peers in the field, others will feel less afraid of being stigmatized should they decide this is a path they want to pursue,” says Mardi. She speaks to how organizations must truly value and support those they hire to do peer-based programming. “Peers take a huge risk by vocalizing their lived experiences,” she says. There’s no doubt in Mardi’s mind that, when done right, the rise of peer approaches to youth services can help transform the world. “If we can take care of our children and youth,” she says, “then we will ultimately have more independent, productive and happy adults.”
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