Tiffany Volk and Jodelle Antonchuk, Grade 12 social justice students, question a provincial decision that will end family guidance counselling services at ADSS. (MIKE YOUDS/Special to the News)

Port Alberni students sound alarm over upcoming cuts to youth counselling

In-school support from family guidance association ends March 31

BY MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

Provincial funding for youth counselling at Alberni District Secondary School (ADSS) will be redirected this spring to focus more on outreach services for high-risk and street-entrenched youth.

The decision by the Ministry of Child and Family Development means youth and family counselling services used by ADSS students for 30 years will no longer be provided within the school.

Students and staff at the school have raised objections to the change with concerns that students may be less inclined to seek counselling and support when services aren’t as readily accessible.

“My concern is that students are not going to be able to access the services outside of school because of fear of their parents finding out,” said Tiffany Volk.

“I feel they can get to know counsellors here on a more personal basis,” said Jodelle Antonchuk.

Volk and Antonchuk, both in Grade 12, are raising awareness of the program cut as part of their independent directed studies in Anne Ostwald’s social justice class. They gathered information on youth mental health, including anonymous feedback from students, and produced a video on the impact of the decision. Their research found that one in four students has used the Family Guidance service.

“From my experience, there’s quite a demand,” Volk said.

Port Alberni Family Guidance Association, founded in 1970, provides professional counselling separately and discretely in the school’s Wellness Centre. For three decades they’ve counselled young people aged 12 to 25 experiencing life challenges that may include anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, grief and abuse. The services are available three days a week, but that will end once funding is redirected at the end of March.

The school-based counsellors are able to build trust and develop relations with at-risk students, they said. One of the concerns is that youth “aging out” of the system at age 18 won’t be able to rely on the counselling, currently available until they reach 25.

“It’s doing good. It’s helping a lot of people,” Antonchuk said.

Regular student counselling services at the school — including youth care workers — are not affected by the change.

Greg Smyth, District 70 superintendent of schools, said he intends to discuss the issue with school board Tuesday at an in-camera meeting.

“I know, and we value, the work of Family Guidance and its presence at ADSS over the last 32 years,” Smyth said. Those services have become an integral component of the school’s wellness centre, part of a network of community supports. “It has worked very well for us,” in terms of student success, he added.

The ministry’s change is intended to make District 70 service delivery consistent with other districts in the province. While the district has discussed the matter with the ministry, Smth hopes to have a deeper conversation with officials about the change.

“The concept of the wellness centre is to support at-risk students in the school rather than having them leave school,” Smyth said. “That’s why we think it has been a great partnership with Family Guidance and all the other agencies.”

Despite concerns, the district will have to wait to see the effect once changes are implemented, Smyth said. It’s unlikely the ministry would reverse its decision, he noted.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Children and Family Development said there is no funding reduction in youth services in Port Alberni. Rather, existing fund are being reinvested to support specialized services.

The program decision affects two-thirds of ministry funding for PAFGA. Due to contract stipulations, the association cannot comment publicly on the changes but can submit a contract bid for the redirected funding.

Volk and Antonchuk feel there remains a possibility the ministry will reconsider its decision.

“That’s what our hope is,” Volk said. “This is one way to get them to change their mind.”

Smyth commended the two students for using their voices to draw attention to the issue.

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