Engaging Newcomer Youth: Stories of Summer Programs from Across Canada

How can organizations better support and engage newcomers in their summer programming? 

Organizations like the Inter-cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA) and the Saskatoon Open Door Society (SODS) are leading efforts to empower newcomer youth through inclusive and impactful summer programs. In 2023,  these initiatives not only provided recreational opportunities, but also served as platforms for cultural exchange, community engagement, and youth empowerment in their communities. 

Summer Programs for Newcomer Youth in Victoria 

In Victoria, newcomer youth received priority access to summer programs through the ICA. Thanks to government funding and facility and equipment support from the City of Victoria— and partner agencies like Power to Be, and Greater Victoria Naturehood Society, among others—these programs offer an array of activities, ranging from sports to cultural events, at minimal to no cost for participants. 

“We have summer camps for our elementary and middle school age youth, and for the older youth, we go camping. We have many evenings of just playing in the park, biking programs, food and garden programs and just exploring Victoria,” Gita John-Iyam, ICA Youth & Family Services Coordinator, explained. “We want to encourage kid-led sessions, meaning that the program leads provide the equipment and space for youth to be active while they interact with one another and build friendships and do their own thing, play their own games. We make sure that it’s a safe space like a park and we bring snacks, lay out equipment and say, ‘Go and do it, play with your friends!’”

Last summer, a mentorship program led by Sport for Life, was also offered to 15 newcomer youth from three different organizations, including those from the ICA.

“It was nice for the youth to understand how important activity and movement are in their own life, and also think about their community. Many of the youth who participated in the mentorship program have leadership aspirations, so it was nice to get them that training. Many came back and volunteered at our camps and they still volunteer today.”

ICA also supports participants in applying for funding through KidSport and JumpStart, so they can access local sports programs on a longer-term basis, like soccer or gymnastics. 

When asked how to best support newcomer youth and provide programming that they will engage in, John-Iyam noted that it is primarily about having fun, community-oriented spaces for the youth to gather, and listening to the youth themselves—having them decide what a meaningful opportunity would be when it comes to activity and having a variety of activities for different abilities and interests. 

This mindset helped ICA implement a climbing activity, with passes made available to a local climbing gym, and opportunities to try yoga at a downtown studio. For ICA youth participant Eman, her passion and enjoyment of climbing today was sparked through an initial homework club ICA hosted at her high school. 

“I don’t think I had ever heard of rock climbing before. Honestly, I thought it was going to be so scary or hard, but I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot; I might like it.’ I went to the climbing program, and everybody there was so happy, welcoming and nice.I started to come more often with friends and bring more people,” she said.

Currently, Eman is climbing 2-3 times a week through the ICA. “I never expected I would like it so much, that it would be one of my favourite activities to do with my friends. I’m not a professional climber, I do it for fun—and I’m really happy with it!”

Born in Egypt, Eman moved to Canada in 2019 with her family. Since arriving in Victoria, the ICA has provided her with incredible opportunities to try new things and meet new people. “It’s so nice that we, [newcomer families and youth] have them—I’m really grateful for that. The people at ICA are really kind and welcoming. I’m thankful for them,” she said.

Summer Programs for Newcomer Youth in Saskatoon

Meanwhile, in Saskatoon, the Saskatoon Open Door Society (SODS) offered a wide range of summer programs tailored to the needs of newcomers, immigrant and refugee youth in their region funded by IRCC and Canadian Tire Jumpstart.. 

Last summer, SODS offered weekly sports programs to introduce and provide space for youth to enjoy basketball, volleyball, swimming, table tennis, badminton, dance, disc golf, running, and even skateboarding.  “We had a program where anyone could come enjoy skateboarding and learn the skill, and another was more specifically targeted towards Afghan girls, supported with separate funding from JumpStart,” Harjeet Kaur, Team Lead for Youth Programming at SODS, explained.

“I like going to programs like Volleyball and Basketball because it teaches me how to play the game and make friends,” SODS program participant Nazar said. “I feel confident and comfortable knowing my teachers are there to help me. I learn a lot and have a lot of fun.”*

SODS even offered different games for participants to try, like Capture the Flag, kickball, Kick the Can, and self-defence sessions for girls, and supported overnight camping for refugee families, with hiking, canoeing and more available throughout the trips.

“I went on a camping trip with my family and friends, and it was an amazing experience! Despite the rainy weather, we made the most of our time by getting together, singing, dancing, swimming, hiking, and setting up our own tents. Spending time with loved ones in the great outdoors was truly unforgettable…,” SODS program participant Hanifa said.*

Some programs ran weekly, while others ran twice a month or monthly depending on participant interest. In total, SODS ran over 45 activities throughout the summer of 2023, all of which are based on a foundational interest indicated by their program participants or on providing the youth with opportunities to learn Canadian activities (for things like canoeing, kickball or bocce, for instance). 

“Programs are created at an entry level—we provide fundamental skills to everyone. And then, of course, the user feedback is always taken into consideration when we are designing programs,” Kaur continued. 

Partnerships were, and are, essential to the programs SODS offers. In 2023, they partnered with:

  • Saskatoon Rowing Club for rowing programs,
  • Astra Soccer Academy for soccer programs, and the
  • Saskatchewan Roughriders for football programming
  • Wild Outside for Camping Training
  • Parks Canada for Camping Training
  • Saskatoon Police Services for providing gym facility and support in facilitating basketball and volleyball programs

Throughout the summer, SODS saw over 330 youth register, and 220 participate, in their summer programming, many of which still experience the impact and enjoyment from those programs today.

“Since I came to Saskatoon, Canada, I involved in the Open Doors program. And it helped me, my family, and my friends, to learn and experience lots of new things. I learned all of the sports through the Open Doors programs, it made me find my skills and continue the sports that I love. Like my first-time playing soccer was a very memorable day for me because it was my dream to play soccer in my country freely but I couldn’t because it wasn’t allowed in our country for girls to play any kind of sport but my first-time playing soccer and enjoying the play with my friends made me to just continue playing,” SODS program participant Muzhda said. “It wasn’t just soccer but also volleyball, basketball, tennis, skateboarding, badminton, and running. I even got the first position in the Marathon under the age of 14 category with training from the Open Doors Society. Now I am in Summer programs and I was waiting for it the whole year to come again, I go to summer programs every day and I love it.”*

Sport for Life Support

Both ICA and SODS received grant application support from Sport for Life’s team in 2023 in addition to the nine organzations listed below. The eventual funding received through the Canada Parks and Recreation Association helped cover fees for sports programs, transportation to reach those programs, and purchasing of equipment. In ICA’s case, the funding also supported their mentorship program.

Sport for Life provided similar support to nine other organizations last year: 

Tangible Takeaways

The experiences at ICA and SODS offer valuable insights into the program diversity, partnerships, and ultimate enjoyment and belonging that can be experienced in youth summer programming for newcomers. When it comes to things other organizations might consider when engaging newcomer youth in their programs, the following are two key takeaways from ICA and SODS’s plethora of programs:

  • Make youth feel seen. Involve them in your program planning, and create programs based on their needs!
  • Be supportive, but provide space for youth to interact on their own in programs. While there may be language barriers, play and activity often don’t require language to understand and enjoy—they will find ways to communicate with each other naturally. 

*All participant quotes from SODS programs were originally shared in JumpStart program reporting.



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