Starved For Opportunity

You remember being young and how you couldn’t wait to grow up and have your independence. And, you remember how attaining that autonomy hinged on one particular right of passage: having a driver’s license.

We are all participants in car culture. Everyone expects to drive. Everyone anticipates driving. Everyone who has a car values it. But, not everyone has the ways or means to legitimately reach that goal; community youth workers say that those who don’t will create a way.

They say disadvantaged or troubled kids are like all kids; they desperately want to fit into car culture. But, kids on the fringe have no way to participate in it without supports. If they don’t have transportation at home or money for bus tickets, if they have addiction issues or are negatively influenced by older people, car theft can surface as an alternative that can affect everyone. We’ve seen it happen.
There was a virus of car thefts several years ago in Vancouver. It involved and was spread by boys, some of whom were as young as 10 or 12.

One theft attracted another and then another until small ad hoc gangs of kids were sharing information about how it was done.
Alex Vasiljević, a Senior Community Worker at Ray-Cam Community Centre, says there had been other car theft epidemics: “They ended with crashes where a kid or kids, or others not in their cars were killed or maimed.”

Gaps in services leave youth out

Previous attempts to address the issue of car thefts were stymied by a gap in services; the provincial government’s social services ministry would not get involved because the kids were in the justice system as a result of being caught for stealing the cars. So, after being frustrated by the system and acting as a prosecution witness of a particular theft, Vasiljević crafted NasKarz, a community program in response.

“The idea of NasKarz,” Vasiljević says, “is to harness the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and courage of these kids into a positive plan that would involve cars and mechanics and introduce them into a new social network.”
“The NasKarz network would help these kids improve their lives through experiencing new opportunities within a healthy environment.”

It is thought that two types of kids steal cars. There are those who are drug addicted, stealing to support the addiction and whom we hear about regularly. Then there are the hidden ones, those who steal out of a need for transportation, to escape from bad situations, to exert some kind of control, or to break up mundane, impoverished existences. Their primary struggle is survival.

Many of the kids have been or are in foster care, some are from single-parent households, others have two parents working but the household is at or below the poverty line. Others live on the street, and some have parents who are struggling with personal issues. These kids are served despair with their cereal each morning, if they even have breakfast at all. The problem is especially difficult when kids reach the age of majority and the social service system drops them into an adulthood they are not prepared for.

Prevention and intervention

That’s why Vasiljević knew that any program would have to have both prevention and intervention components.

The NasKarz program would have to involve wrap-around services, and kids would have to voluntarily buy into it
Wrap-around servicing means that kids and their families prioritize both the kid’s needs and healthy options; that they choose their community workers as well as natural supports, such as friends and extended family, to function as their support team. The whole team shares responsibility for developing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating the plan, which is always designed to connect the kids and their families to the community and the supports it can provide. The plan is both culturally sensitive and individualized, based upon the kid’s strengths, and it is outcome based, measuring progress through specific and concrete targets and indicators.

Those needs and goals can initially be surprisingly basic, including housing and food, or wanting to learn how to read or spell. Once the kids determine their needs, youth workers find and coordinate community services and provide follow-up supports.
Kids’ aptitudes and their existing skills are identified and focused into skills-set training, so that their attributes can now work for rather than against them. In this process they can normalize.

An interest based approach is critical

“Go-carting and mechanics are obvious draws for this group of kids,” Vasiljević says. “An interest-based approach is both critical and central because these kids from both the peer and targeted groups, both pre-adult and young-adult ages, have particular obstacles to overcome.”

The underlying theme is to build trusting relationships with these kids so that they are open to learning skills, and setting and reaching goals that will help them mainstream into productive and healthy lives.”

To do that the program uses healthy, well-functioning kids as peers, as models and friends for kids who are struggling.

The peers are from within the community centre. Others who were involved in theft were targeted through outreach, but now the street telegraph is drawing those kids in and new connections to a healthy, alternative support system keep them there.

The NasKarz program is also supported by regular community centre programs that keep kids connected to healthy support groups through sports, enrichment, music, computer and other activities.

When it comes to the young adults, community youth workers try to help them into healthy, independent living situations so that they have a fixed address. This allows them to use the mechanical aptitude, abilities and skills they have or acquire within the car program to apply for and find employment.

An opportunity to do better

“There is inherent good in these kids. Where there is a program in place, they will take the opportunity to do better.”

Cars are the just hook into the program. Involvement with cars helps these kids save face on a rough street.
The NasKarz program is important for its participants’ futures because these kids are not hungry for crime; they’re starved for opportunity.