At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s grey and raining outside at UBC. MacInnes Field is soaked and abandoned as students trudge past on their way to the bus. It’s damp, it’s cold, and the unwelcome tension of midterm season is permeating the campus air.
Fifteen minutes off campus at the new Musqueam Community Centre, four UBC REC student volunteers, two UBC First Nations House of Learning student coordinators and 12 Musqueam youth have gathered for two hours as they do every Wednesday, to participate together in a program called Bridge Through Sport.
Inside the community centre, the contrast between the gloomy atmosphere outside is striking. The classroom is buzzing with laughter and chatter. Aged eight to 12, the kids have delivered themselves willingly to the program. They trickle into the room in their various uniforms, most of them having come straight from school. They dig into the miniature bananas, chewy granola bars and crackers that have been set out for them on the table — a perfect smorgasbord of after-school snacks.
Bridge Through Sport started in 2002 as a joint initiative between UBC and the Musqueam nation when some of the leaders from the reserve, including Leona Sparrow, Musqueam’s director of treaty, lands and resources, sat down and had a conversation with the university about how UBC could begin to give back to the Musqueam community.
According to Ryanne James, the Bridge Through Sport director at UBC’s First Nations House of Learning, at that time there was a collective feeling on the reserve that the university had a long history of going into Musqueam, doing research and asking for support from the community, but the relationship was often not a two-way street.
Bridge Through Sport was one of the programs born out of that conversation. It began as a summer soccer tournament and over time evolved into the sport and learning program that it is today.
James said that the sport aspect of the program was very deliberate. “Throughout all sorts of communities around the globe, physical activity and sport has been proven as a way to bring people onto an even playing field,” said James. “You might not have the same education or financial means as other people, but being on a field together is a real equalizer.
“Leona Sparrow played sports as a youth, and she always speaks to that being a big part of her life experience,” James continued. “Because of her participation in sports as a youth, as a Musqueam youth, she stayed in school and ended up going to university, in part because there were expectations that were connected to sports.”
Bridge Through Sport is unique because the kids that show up to the program are almost completely autonomous in their participation. This makes the staff accountable for ensuring that they are providing an atmosphere that keeps the kids wanting to come back.
“Our programs are checked for attendance, and the kids are choosing to be there themselves,” said James. “They walk themselves to the community centre, and they typically walk themselves home.”
Luckily, the day’s activity — bingo — has earned the kids’ attention. “The hardest part is coming up with simple, interesting activities that the kids will like,” said Henry Lai, one of the UBC First Nations House of Learning student coordinators, and a Science undergraduate student at UBC.
“A few weeks ago, we had them plant vegetables in the garden to teach them about healthy foods, and right now we’re in the process of borrowing stethoscopes from the Faculty of Medicine so that the kids can examine changes in their heart rates pre- and post-exercise.”
James has worked with the program for the past six years, and co-coordinators Lai and Salia Joseph have both worked with Musqueam youth in other programs run by the First Nations House of Learning. According to James, having the same leaders involved in different initiatives is a big pull for the kids — if they know that somebody they know and like is going to be there, they get to build lasting relationships, and they’re more likely to want to keep coming back.
For both Lai and Joseph, the bottom line of Bridge Through Sport is to achieve active participation with 100 per cent of the kids. They don’t want anybody sitting on the sidelines or hanging out in the hallways.
“The kids just like being with each other and they like being with us,” said Joseph, a First Nations studies student at UBC who hails from the Squamish nation herself. “They want to come into the gym and run around and know that people are invested in them being here.”
By 4 p.m., the room is a tornado of bingo supplies and everyone is itching to head into the gym. The kids finish cleaning up and gather at the classroom door, swarming Dillan-Jean Karst, a UBC REC volunteer, to decide what they’re going to play.
They settle on soccer, a clear group favorite. Karst drops the ball and the scene comes to life. The kids are laughing and screaming and high-fiving all over the court.
For the volunteers, the best part of the program is coming back each week and getting to build relationships with the kids. “The volunteers often come to the program expecting to teach, but what they generally take away is a learning that there is this vibrant, healthy, amazing community here at Musqueam,” said James. “They come to the reserve not really knowing what to expect, and when they get there they’re like, OK, awesome.”
Working with Musqueam youth is also a reminder for the volunteer staff of that fact that attending University is a huge privilege. When the volunteers see that they’re being admired for going to UBC, it’s a glaring reminder that for some of these kids, post-secondary education is a big deal, and it’s definitely not something that should be taken for granted.
According to James, one of the most important goals of Bridge Through Sport is to help change the kids’ attitudes towards learning. When they come to the community centre, the kids have a place where they can be themselves, where they can participate fully and have a positive learning experience.
“For some kids, depending on where they’re going to school, there is still a significant amount of racism, or different kinds of expectations for them,” said James. “When they get to the community centre, they know that they can be themselves and have a lot of fun.”
“In some ways though, I think that the sport is a bigger portion than the education piece,” added James. “If we are looking to encourage kids to do well in school, a big part of that is feeling good about yourself, and I think sport and recreation has an enormous ability to ensure that. If you’re not the best soccer player on the field, it’s no big deal; there’s still an immense value in being on the field and running around regardless of your ability, and the kids get to learn that here.”
The volunteers get to learn a lot, too. “For me, one of the most important things is to remember that this is a learning exchange,” said Joseph. “I come here every week with the message in my head that I’m here to learn as much as I’m here to teach.”
Before I can finish interviewing Joseph, she jumps off the bench to join in the last round of tag, passing by a sweaty REC volunteer huffing and fanning his T-shirt as he stumbles off the court. “Good game,” he pants as he plops down in the spot next to me.
At the end of the day, the volunteers say their goodbyes to the kids and pile back into their blue REC van. They’re sweaty and exhausted, but they’ve been rejuvenated by the program’s energy. They’re laughing and chatting, clearly leaving Musqueam happier than they’d arrived at the community centre.