CanU is helping kids learn about themselves.
“[I’ve learned] to make new friends and be who you are,” says 11-year-old Issah Julian, a Grade 6 student from Victoria Albert School who participates in CanU. “[I’ve learned] there are other different kinds of people just like you and that helps you be yourself.”
CanU is an after-school program connecting kids in Grades 5 to 8 to student and adult mentors at the University of Manitoba. It connects the young people to possibility and opportunity. And, most importantly, it connects them to hope.
“If a person has hope for the future they will be able to develop the strategies to reach their goals,” says Roger Berrington, Executive Director and Co-Founder of CanU. “Hope gives resiliency and perseverance – necessary when an obstacle gets in the way of their goal.”
The CanU kids, who might not otherwise have the chance to attend university, are picked up from their elementary and middle schools each week and bused to the university. Once there, they meet up with their mentors, share a healthy meal, and start to learn and grow.
During the course of the 14-week school year program, students explore different faculties before picking their Academy major – including Art, Jazz, Science, Musical Theatre or Superhero.
Launched in 2010 with just 18 CanU students and 40 university mentors, CanU now engages 400 students and more than 500 university volunteers. It operates four days a week during the school year, with programs running at the Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses, as well as in the summer.
This impressive growth has been possible thanks to partnerships, sponsorships and plenty of grants – Mr. Berrington says he personally wrote 78 grant applications in the first five years.
To ensure the program’s long-term sustainability, CanU recently established an Agency Fund at The Winnipeg Foundation. An Agency Fund provides an annual source of income to be used at the discretion of the charitable organization that established it.
“We’ve got some amazing partners that help fund our programs but we know we need a sustainable future and the Agency Fund is a big part of that,” Mr. Berrington says.
CanU is also in the midst of developing a Scholarship Fund. Students can apply for a $1,000 scholarship each year they attend CanU, for a total of up to $4,000 to put towards their education at the University of Manitoba.
“One of the things we’ve had the dream of doing is helping kids find the resources to one day study here. We’ve had a very generous person – and with The Foundation’s help of matching some gifts in a five year period – we’re hoping to create a pool of about $500,000 to invest in the future of the kids.”
This is the first year students can apply for scholarship and between 30 and 40 scholarships will be available; Mr. Berrington hopes to eventually grow this to 100 scholarships per year.
Part of CanU’s success stems from the strong relationships the program fosters.
“[The CanU kids] get to develop relationships with their peers but they also get to develop relationships with university students and adults in different ways,” explains Michelle Honeyford, an Assistant Professor with the University, who coordinates the CanU program for the Faculty of Education.
“Somebody’s looking out for them, somebody’s having that conversation with them, somebody’s asking about their day, somebody’s really doing their best to engage them in whatever it is they’re doing. That’s a very positive place for kids to really shine and be themselves.”
Likewise, getting to know the kids is the best part for student mentors.
“I personally love coming to CanU, it’s a good break from school,” says 20-year-old Brooke Cochrane who has been volunteering with CanU for three years.
CanU is a great learning opportunity for university students as it allows them to develop much of the program, including designing and teaching the Academies, booking the facilities, managing a small budget, and more.
“We want people to have a meaningful leadership experience. If we just hired them and told them what to do they’re not having the experience of trying to figure something out,” Mr. Berrington explains.
The experience is so significant, Cara Scott returned to U of M after graduating to volunteer as an instructor for the Nutrition Academy.
“I don’t have much experience with youth and I’ve heard so many good things about this program. I was never a volunteer with it either so I came in,” Ms. Scott says.
CanU is already the largest student group on campus, Mr. Berrington says, and it’s highly respected.
“CanU is a recognized and kind of a prestigious volunteer opportunity. What we’re getting feedback is, when you have CanU on your resume, that’s a very good thing.”
Listen to a feature story on CanU at RiverCity360.org.