Helping homeless youth is Teesha Sharma’s passion, one that earned her the inaugural Citizen of the Year Under 40 award at the Maple Ridge Community Foundation gala over the weekend.
“Shocking,” was the only word Sharma could find to describe the award.
“Every one of the nominees are doing some incredible things and some great things in the community,” said the 26-year-old.
“It was a crazy moment, one that I was very thankful for.”
Sharma has had to overcome major obstacles in her own life to get to where she is now, as youth services program director at the CEED Centre Society.
She grew up in an abusive home and was cycled in and out of youth shelters before ending up homeless. When she was 16-years old, the Ministry of Children and Family Development put her in an apartment by herself. She was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and went into social isolation for quite some time.
“I can’t say how many times I attempted suicide. A lot,” said Sharma.
Then at 22 years old, she was about to make another attempt to take her own life when she realized that if she did kill herself, all of the abuse she endured would not only have taken away the years that she lived, but those that were to come.
Sharma went back to school and decided to find a way to change the way that society works with youth. She graduated class valedictorian.
Her first mission was to start long-term youth housing.
”I went to every organization in Maple Ridge, knocked on the door and told them my story and what I wanted to do,” explained Sharma.
“Everybody just said, ‘That’s nice, but we can’t help you,” she said.
That’s when she knocked on Christian Cowley’s door at the CEED Centre.
As the centre’s executive director, he wanted to help Sharma realize her dream. His help has enabled her to create barrier-free programs for youth ages 13 to 24 years old. The programs are accessible for youth and don’t have intrusive intake requirements.
“One of the biggest problems, not just in Maple Ridge, but in B.C., programs from agencies tend to have a lot of barriers and eligibility criteria that really disqualifies so many youth from the get-go. And then they hear no after no and they stop asking for help,” explained Sharma who, believes in meeting youth where they are at instead of forcing them to conform to the norms in the community.
“An eight-hour shift for a homeless youth is not going to work, but a three-hour shift is manageable and accessible to them,” she added.
Sharma started Blue Door Youth Services, which includes a program called Go Figure, a youth-led support group for youth 13-24 with anxiety and depression.. The group meets twice a month and is a mix between round-table discussions with individual check-ins. A mentor training component teaches community members how to understand, identify and support youth struggling with mental health issues and provides insight into how to best communicate and empower disenfranchised youth.
“Then, of course, our outreach services to our unsupported homeless youth, of which there are a lot in Maple Ridge,” said Sharma.
She is also on the steering committee, as a youth with lived experience, at the Youth Wellness Centre.
Sharma’s biggest endeavor this year is a new employment program for homeless youth that she will be launching soon.
“We are going to employ homeless youth to pick up and collect organic waste from local offices,” she said, adding that local MLAs Bob D’Eith and Lisa Beare will be the first offices to take part.
“The shifts will be really short so that they don’t overwhelm the youth who are homeless,” said Sharma, noting that the job is really an engagement tool.
“The point is to build those relationships,” she said.
Twice a month, the youth employment program provides group training and youth who participate get their RentSmart, WorkSafeBC and Food Safe certificates.
What Sharma would like to see in Maple Ridge right now is a youth safe house, as opposed to a shelter.
Iron Horse Youth Safe House in Maple Ridge closed in January 2015 after federal funding was redirected as part of the federal Housing First Strategy.
A youth shelter is only available for seven days, and a person has to be out of the house from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the locations are available to the public.
“We only actually have 20 low-barrier youth beds in B.C. The closest one to us is in Abbotsford and it is a faith-based one,” said Sharma.
A youth safe house, Sharma explained, is at an undisclosed location, where youth don’t have to leave the house every day, which she believes is crucial for youth that are being exploited.
“That’s one of the biggest things we are advocating for right now and I would very much like to see that happen,” said Sharma.
Cowley, who nominated Sharma for the award because of her work ethic, says she is pretty incredible.
“She endured a lot as a youth and she works and volunteers the way she would have liked to be treated herself in every case, even with the seniors, even with people who are technically not in the age range that we serve in our regular work,” said Cowley, adding that she gives unconditional support to people.
“She spends almost none of her salary on herself and almost all of it on the people she works with and supports as volunteers,” he said, noting that Sharma feeds eight to 10 youth every night, for the most part, out of her own pocket, in addition to making the meals and delivering them.
Sharma did her entire first year at the CEED Centre as a volunteer and has been paid part-time for the last two years, even though she works seven days a week.
Awards like Citizen of the Year are important to Sharma because she says it can get discouraging to a certain point when you are working on an issue that you are passionate about and it is being met by resistance.
“They are putting their entire heart into something even when it might not be the easiest thing to do and I think that it’s important to recognize that,” Sharma added.
She was humbled to be recognized.
“It was just a huge honour and it meant the world to me.”