Changing the ways we work with vulnerable youth


I have the privilege of working with three extraordinary teams that are part of United Way’s Vulnerable Youth Investment Strategy. These teams work with four agencies (Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Alex and the Calgary Sexual Health Centre) and have taken on the daunting task of exploring new ways to work with vulnerable youth, their families and other natural supports.

Families matter. That was the message of last year’s Pushing the Limits conference (read more about that here).

Since then, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to change our thinking and our practice. We’ve learned much about enabling and funding innovation; about changing the way we work with youth and their families; about mentoring and what this means for youth transitioning from care. We’ve begun a different conversation that is taking us into new territory. Although much remains uncertain, some things have become clear:

  • Existing human services tend to create and reinforce disconnection between vulnerable youth and their families.
  • Professionals such as youth workers and social workers provide essential supports to vulnerable youth, but they can’t be the central support. Families and other non-professionals must be part of the solution.
  • Relationship is everything. Without authentic and trusting relationships with service providers, youth and families will not engage with them. These relationships are more important than any program intervention.
  • Innovation is messy and uncomfortable. It inherently challenges the status quo and requires us to work differently as funders, service agencies and frontline staff.
  • Making sustainable social change means examining our most basic assumptions and having the humility to reflect and learn from our mistakes. It means shifting our thinking, our practice and our culture.

Melissa Innes is an independent consultant and the developmental evaluator for United Way’s Vulnerable Youth Investment Strategy. She supports a range of multi-disciplinary teams to apply critical thinking and evaluative rigour to their efforts to make positive social change. She can be reached at

This conversation will continue tomorrow at the Pushing the Limits II conference, where staff from agencies, school boards and other organizations will explore how they can change the way they view and work with vulnerable youth.