From surviving to thriving: Jenna Wirch Creates Opportunity for Indigenous Youth
“I grew up in Winnipeg. I grew up in poverty. I grew upon the streets, homeless, in CFS care. I didn't want to stay in the same cycle as my peers and as my family.” Those are the words that Jenna Wirch, The One Who Sings With The Grandmothers, uses to share her story of how she went from surviving to thriving and how she helps others do the same.
A member of Bear Clan and of Long Plain First Nation, Wirch started a group called AYO, Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, with a colleague. As the name suggests, for ten years, they’ve been providing Indigenous youth with opportunities to better themselves.
We're trying to break stereotypes in our neighborhood by being helpers, and not being those stereotypes that society places on us as Indigenous youth.
She talks about her work as ”fixing the systems that are in place that oppress Indigenous young people, helping out family, just being a true helper and doing the work that needs to be done without being asked to do it and not asking the government for help.”
An influx in gang activity in the north end of Winnipeg left Wirch and her cofounder wanting a positive outlook for Indigenous young people to go to instead of having to join a gang.
What do gangs bring to the table when Indigenous young people need an outlet? When there is nothing around they provide family, they provide safety, they provide job opportunities, but that just wasn't sufficing for us.
Wirch wanted to offer something different, explaining, “What we have now done is become a positive gang. We provide hope, meaning, purpose, and belonging. That's essentially what our four pillars of our work that we do.”
After grade 12, Wirch went through post-secondary education through an access program. To become a registered child care practitioner, Wirch reached out to community resources.
I didn't want to continue the cycle of poverty. I wanted a good life for myself and my community around me.
She hasn’t stopped learning. Wirch shares, “I'm unlearning all the unhealthiness that I've learned throughout living in poverty and living on the streets and living a hard life, and healthy coping mechanisms, my past trauma, learning how to heal myself.” She found community for herself and wants youth looking for something more to find it too.
If you're coming to a big city that is unfamiliar to you, remember that you are loved, that there are people out there and just look for your community and look for your village. You need to create that sense of belonging and recreate that community that you once had, because that's how you're going to get through in this life. You are not alone.
There will always be a community that you belong to. When you move to a big city, in every single city, there is a friendship center. There is a place that feels like family, where there is people who are inclusive and won't judge you. You just gotta keep at it and believe that you can make it because you can.
Her words for her younger self are similarly infused with compassion.
“Just chill, everything happens for a reason. you can get through this. You're surviving and you will make it through. Keep going. Reach out to your community and don't be afraid. Don't be afraid because we're all in this together. We've all had to do it.
I know it's hard, but like other people who have been through it, we're out here and just reach out, because we know what it's like. We have a lot of opportunities to provide to help and a community that you belong to.”
Wirch has faced a lot of challenges from the outside and even some from within, like panic attacks. Through meditation and medicines the elders have taught her, she finds comfort.
Whenever I'm going through a panic attack, I remember to breathe and I light a smudge and I pray and I ask the ancestors to be with me.
A drummer and I'm a singer, Wirch pulls out her drum and sets energy out into the world. “Creator gifts me back with the patience. At times of uncertainty I just prayed to creator to like ask him that he take care of me and I put all my faith in what is to come.” She also makes lists of what she can and can’t control and all the things she’s grateful for.
Wirch is inspired by the speed of learning of the young people of today, by their courage and how they have been resilient despite genocide against Indigenous people. She’s inspired by the Indigenous community as a whole and to the elders that keep and pass on the teachings, hoping to become one of those old “kokoms” one day.
We have been going for 500 years and we are still thriving. We count as 5% of Canada, we are still out here strong, and we haven't left. They tried to kill us, but we are still here.
Looking to the old ones and the strength of community, Wirch wants to pass that onto the young people of today. She says, “When you're moving on from your community, from that old lifestyle, I want you to know that you are loved. You is kind, you is smart and you is important and reach out to your elders and reach out to other youth around you, because you matter, and don't give up. We need you for the next seven generations to come.”
She herself went from surviving to thriving, from living on the streets to building community and from needing a chance to creating opportunities. Forward-looking, with respect for the past, breaking cycles and showing up to serve, Jenna Wirch is making a difference.
Thanks to Alison Tedford for writing this article.
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