Scarborough program training youth – many with criminal backgrounds – in landscaping

Fernie Youth Services, a West Rouge-based charity, provides various supports to youth and young adults coming out of the justice system. They also operate Fernie Works, a full-service lawn care social enterprise company. Nick Westoll reports.

The headquarters of Fernie Youth Services in Scarborough’s West Rouge neighbourhood might seem modest to some, but the goals and hopes of those who walk through the office are ambitious.

“I think it’s remembering that a young person is a young person regardless of the background, regardless of where they may come from, and all young people are in need of support, encouragement and even mentorship,” Renaldo Wall, the director of community services at Fernie Youth, recently told CityNews.

The charity, located on Port Union Road, primarily works with younger people who are coming out of the justice system. The organization provides transitional supports like safe housing, transportation to important appointments, and relearning life skills — services that are all key to helping people reintegrate into society.

“Because of the length of time that they’ve been in jail, sometimes a lot of things have changed … A lot of them are already facing barriers before they went into jail and now those barriers are increased because they now have this record,” Wall said.

“What we try to do is try to eliminate as many barriers as possible to help them to continue to live a successful life on the other side.”

Fernie Youth Services also has a social enterprise component too called Fernie Works. It’s a full-service lawn care company run by the organization and its participants.

Nineteen-year-old Korry Hypolite told CityNews he came into the program in January after being caught up in the legal system.

“The transition was a little rough because I didn’t know what I was getting into, but then once we started with cutting the lawns and stuff then everything got better, it got easier. These guys here are really good,” he said.

“They’ve been actually really good to me personally, and to the other new teammates that came in. They’re actually trying to help. They understand the situation we’re coming from.”

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Throughout the year while Fernie Works was operating its landscaping business, Hypolite said he learned how to use zero-turn mowers, push mowers and trimmers.

“It makes me feel good. You come here, you see a property that needs cleaning up, it needs help and then when you’re done, you leave, you see the property looking way better, you feel better, you feel accomplished, you feel like you did something,” he said.

At the end of last year, Hypolite said he was at a point where he wanted to make better decisions. With his exposure to landscaping, he said he’s thinking about getting into business for himself.

“The best thing you can do is find stability,” Hypolite said.

“Stability is something that would help you get a clear head with what you want to do with your life and this, like Fernie Works, it gives you that option to have that stability, to go to work, make some money and then you know you can do what you need to do.”

Aaron Flannery, a 19-year-old south Scarborough resident, said he joined the program last year after seeing an ad on a job website.

“Definitely when you make nice stripes in lawns, when you edge up a lawn real nice, it looks really good and … I like getting in the truck, looking at a property and saying, ‘Wow, I made that person’s house look nice,’” he said.

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Flannery said he doesn’t have a criminal history. In fact, the criminology student said he wants to go into law enforcement.

“This program is really good for kind of opening my eyes on what it’s like coming out of the criminal justice system for sure. It’s not just prison and you’re out, it’s more rehabilitation and helping these guys out, learn skills, learn work ethic and just learn to be just a good part of the community,” he said, encouraging people to give younger people who have been released from jail and are working to improve their lives a chance.

“I came in (for) the interview and I was like ‘Oh, I didn’t know I’m working with kind of criminals coming out of the system,’ and then I realized everyone has their own story, everyone is the same. So just if you see somebody, don’t judge them just think of them as yourself.”

Nolan Broome, the program coordinator for Fernie Works, said like many other parts of Fernie Youth Services, it’s about imparting transferable skills.

“Whether it’s just commitment, just making sure you’re waking up and in uniform, coming in on time and willing to put your best foot forward, take direction, work as a team and then you actually have the lawn maintenance skills: so the techniques involved with the equipment, small maintenance and repairs with the equipment, safety and security of loading and unloading of the equipment with the truck and trailer,” he said.

“It takes a lot of courage to … reach out to us and say that you’re stuck and need some help. I admire that from the crew that I work with. We’ve had great wins, good days and bad days really.”

Broome said crew members learn how to perform services such as core aerations, leaf blowing and collection, cutting, and trimming.

“That’s what this program is about. It’s really just a stepping stone to make sure they gain the valuable work and life lessons here to relate that into an actual job,” he said.

Broome said for anyone who is thinking of hiring the Scarborough company for landscaping work, they’ll come on a one-time basis, weekly or biweekly. The prices vary based on square footage, but lawn cutting, blowing and the disposal of trimmings start at $40.

Ontario Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton told CityNews the type of program Fernie Youth Services offers is what the provincial government is looking to back. Fernie Youth receives some funding from the Ontario government and the City of Toronto.

He noted the provincial government also provided funding to the John Howard Society to get people with criminal backgrounds into advanced manufacturing.

“We have a huge labour shortage in the province of Ontario and one of the things I see as a huge opportunity,” he said.

“This is what we’re really focusing on to lift people up, give people a second chance, and to ultimately fill labour shortages.”

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Under the Better Jobs Ontario retraining initiative, McNaughton said people can get up to $28,000 for short-duration training, a living allowance, child care, textbooks and transportation.

“Careers in the skilled trades are meaningful, they’re lucrative, in many cases they pay six figures, they can come with a defined pension and benefit,” he said, adding this fall dozens of recruiters are going to reach out to youth and young adults across the province to highlight how they can pursue careers in the trades.

“There’s a real sense of purpose to these careers and that’s why we’re focusing on driving that message home to parents, to young people, to guidance counsellors that these are great careers and not every single young person has to go to university to be successful.”

Meanwhile, as they tend to the lawn of one of the Scarborough churches they service, Broome and Hypolite had messages they wanted to share with potential employers and the public with respect to anyone coming out of the program.

“I know maybe youth get painted a certain way, they’re on their phones a lot, they’re late, they’re lazy or something like that but that’s not the case. They came to us and we just provided the opportunity and the platform, and they’re the ones that are running the business. So take a chance you won’t regret it,” Broome said.

“As employers, sometimes they actually just need to give some of us a chance, you know, because we just need a little push forward to get where we need to go to be honest and that’s what it is, most of the time we don’t get that and that’s where the downfall happens and we get tangled back up in the system,” Hypolite added.

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