Educational charity Canada World Youth (CWY) is seeking queer families to host Kenyan and Canadian youths when its program relaunches in Ottawa Sept 13.
CWY strives to enrich young people’s lives through life experience and informal education. Founded in 1971 by the late Honourable Jacques Hébert, the program pairs youth volunteers with host families to allow the youths to integrate with a new community and experience local culture.
Nine Kenyan and nine Canadian participants will come to Ottawa this year. Project supervisor Damon Chen says it’s important for queer Canadians to become host families in order to accurately represent Canada’s diversity.
“Some of the youths will be coming from rural areas, and some of them will be coming from different cities. We recognize that in modern Canadian society, gay families are present, and we want to make sure we have a representation in the programming as well,” says Chen, noting this is the first year CWY has pushed for more gay and lesbian host families.
He says it’s specifically important for the Kenyan participants to be exposed to queer families as homophobia is rife in the central African country.
“Technically, in Kenya homosexual acts are still illegal, although there is a pro-LGBT movement growing there. The youths are people who are still forming their opinions of what they believe and what they don’t believe,” he says. “It’s a great chance for them to see what a queer family is like and to see what a queer lifestyle is like. That it’s not the same kind of thing that’s been demonized in the past.”
Hershel Kagan has worked as a volunteer physician for CWY since the Ottawa chapter began in 2009. As an alumnus of the program, he says youths who participate will experience invaluable personal growth.
“It was the first place where I came out and got to talk with someone about being gay,” Kagan says of his time with CWY in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “That really had a profound effect on me. You are living in a group environment with people who are different from you. It really challenges your own perspective of the world and your thoughts about yourself.”
Kagan encourages queer families to enlist with CWY as it is an opportunity to obtain worldly, hands-on education as adults. “It is a fantastic, emotionally intense program. It’s a great opportunity to learn from other people and to learn about other cultures.”
For more information and to register as a host family, visit the CWY official site.
A Canadian comes of age through Canada World Youth
From the moment I packed my suitcase I knew I was going to have a major life transition and adventure as a participant in Canada World Youth.
When my plane touched down in New Brunswick on a foggy afternoon, I began a cultural exchange that played a substantive role in my life. I knew I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone and taking a huge leap of faith.
At the start of my program I knew none of the strangers on my team – the other participants each came from different provinces all across Canada. However, after only a few months together, we had become a family. I had never called a group of people that before. I had never been stripped down to such a level of vulnerability, where my insecurities and inner demons were written on me like constellations have been written in the skies for millennia. There was nothing left for me to do but fight to stand up and face inner struggles I had buried and hidden while in high school.
People saw me as Logan the confident, the joker, the wild party animal. People didn’t know me as Logan the insecure, the sentimental, the one who is constantly conflicted about his supposedly “secure” sexuality and his image. And that’s because I didn’t let that side of myself show.
Who can? It takes courage to accept that aspect of oneself in the first place, let alone to reach out to someone and talk about it.
But there I was. Reaching out to a group of strangers and two wonderfully warm host families, one in Fredericton and the other in Ghana. Both had such radiantly different personalities and lifestyles than my own. Then I realized that not only had I embarked on such a grand journey, but I had begun a healing process with myself as well.
For four months I was pushed above and beyond my limits. From raising money for the homeless shelters in our host city Fredericton, to engaging in a Make Poverty History petition, it was an empowering feeling to be one youth reaching out to help other youth. After phase one in New Brunswick, my team and I packed our bags and returned to the airport to begin our second phase . . . on the west coast of Africa. To be more specific, we were headed to a village of 2,000 people called Paga, which sits on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso. Never in my life had I ever experienced something so beautiful, so raw, so life-changing.
Ah, there’s that phrase: life-changing. Now, I don’t want to throw these two words around as a corny, exaggerated, over-rated idiom to define my experience. I am using this phrase because I simply have no other words to utter and no other words to string together to explain the experience I had in Ghana. There, on that continent, it was as if a veil that had blinded me all of my life was suddenly lifted.
For four months my team and I daily biked about eight kilometres on rough, sandy terrain to Kazigu, a rural Ghanaian village with no running water or electricity to work on a reforestation project. This project had us clearing the land, fetching water and planting seeds from shea and mango trees. We also had individual side projects; half of us assisted at health clinics, and the other half, including me, assisted at local schools.
I was always insecure with my physical appearance. I just had never talked about it. This insecurity stems from always comparing myself to others. We live in a society that has overly consumed media to the point of unhealthy worship. Of course, one could say I have the option of turning off my computer, ignoring the billboards and not buying into it. But I will admit, it isn’t easy for me because I want it. I want it all. I want to have it, I want to live it, and I want to be it. Thus began the deterioration of my mental health and then my physical health.
I realized that everyone in Ghana is physically fit – fit as in ripped like a Greek Adonis. However, nobody goes to the gym – most don’t know what a “gym” is. Why would you go to the gym when you need to carry buckets of water several times a day on top of your head, when you bike several kilometres every day to reach the nearest market, or when you grow up in a life filled with manual labour?
I realized that, for the most part, the reason we go to the gym back home is not necessarily to stay active but to look active – look chiselled, look muscular and stay that way. While in Ghana, the “gym” is your life.
Being stripped from the media, from the fast-paced rush of North American society, I was as free as I have ever been in my life. I rolled out of bed not worrying about what my hair looked like or what outfit I was wearing or what text I had received on my phone. It wasn’t because I was a slob; it was because people cared about me as a person, rather than me as a person based on my appearance.
Living through the Canada World Youth experience in West Africa and on the East coast of Canada helped me sort out tremendous insecurities about myself and helped me fight many lingering inner demons. I was stripped from everything that I was comfortable with and felt safe. It gave me a new skin – a layer that was stitched up by two loving host families and a team of friends who showed me what selflessness is. This new layer of skin has helped me grow into the strong and solid, confident man I am today.
Logan Ly is a former Youth Leader at Canada World Youth and a former Marketing and PR intern at Pink Triangle Press, Xtra‘s publisher.