A guiding voice: Youth Justice grad helps secure the futures of teens at risk

By Zach Siddiqui, Marketing and Communications

Kayla Gambler wanted an education that would help her better support Indigenous youth facing the same challenges she once did – living away from her community, and dealing with grief, trauma and substance use. She discovered the two-year Diploma in Youth Justice and hasn’t looked back.  

“I love learning how to help youth navigate the justice system,” Kayla says. “When you don’t understand the laws in place and you see how unfairly people are often treated, it can be overwhelming. I’m gaining the knowledge I need to, hopefully, change things for the youth I work with piece by piece.” 

The winding road to justice 

Before Kayla studied at Douglas, she was a support worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Through a recovery program run by a women’s resource organization, she helped women reduce their substance use while providing them with food, one-on-one support and harm reduction supplies.  

The work was fulfilling, but it was also psychologically challenging. After a while, Kayla felt she was no longer able to be the person this community needed. 

“There’s a lot that comes with that job,” Kayla says. “You’re seeing a lot of mental health struggles, addictions, trauma. The work burned me out. I realized I couldn’t give 100 percent to the women that I was supporting, not anymore.” 

Kayla took a step back, choosing to continue her relief work on a part-time basis, and refocus on her education. She hoped to both rejuvenate herself and to reorient her career trajectory to something new in the same field. Considering her options at Douglas led her to the Diploma in Youth Justice. It fit perfectly into what Kayla felt was her next calling: provide support to youth in need, especially Indigenous youth. 

“I wanted to work with youth. I wanted to work with high-risk youth. And I wanted to learn so much more about the external and underlying factors out there that shape their lives.” 

Making sure the kids are all right 

Acclimating to the Youth Justice program took Kayla some time. In her previous job, she was part of an Indigenous-led team working mainly with Indigenous women, a community she already felt deeply connected to. Leaving that behind to restart her studies made her feel uprooted. But she enjoyed the coursework and her cohort, and soon hit her stride. 

“For lots of people, going back to school means long lectures and huge class sizes,” Kayla says. “It’s hard to connect with people. But I felt lucky to have a very different experience with my Youth Justice cohort – all great people going through this program together in a tight-knit group. I couldn’t imagine starting my college career any other way.” 

The two-year Youth Justice Diploma features courses in behavioural theory, public policy, skill development and more. One of the program’s biggest attractions is the hands-on learning it offers through two practicums.  

In her first year, Kayla did a five-week placement with ACCESS Youth, a local youth outreach service doing work on the ground with high-risk youth throughout the Tri-Cities. Kayla’s team was regularly stationed in Coquitlam’s commercial district – a hotspot for local youth – sometimes working until as late as midnight. 

“We were there to keep them safe,” Kayla says. “If they were drawn into conflicts, then we connected with them and made sure they were OK. We were mediators between them and local businesses and mall security. We gave them resources: snacks, contraception, harm reduction supplies.” 

Kayla was hired at ACCESS full-time after her practicum. She became their first youth worker whose portfolio focused on Indigenous outreach.  

Rerouting the roots 

Kayla’s applied learning will serve her even further once she graduates this summer. Her diploma and work experience will open doors to careers working with children, youth and families in community support, crisis intervention, judicial administration and much more.  

But Kayla wants to take that to the next level by completing a Bachelor of Social Work. 

“When I started my diploma, I’d originally planned to graduate and focus on my career,” Kayla says. “That’s a great option to have. Personally, I found an interest in continuing my education to further build my skills, to have the opportunity to do even better for the youth I want to work with.” 

Kayla says her two years in Youth Justice have been rich with opportunities. She has a film project coming out, though the details are still hush-hush. She’s travelling this semester through the Indigenous Global Learning Program to the University of Hawai’i, where she will connect with local Indigenous communities.  

Right now, she’s waiting to hear back from the University of Victoria about her application to transfer into their social work program, a move that would mean huge changes. 

“I’ll have to figure out where I can work, and live, and set my roots. I’ll have to re-establish my life. But I’m so excited to take my experiences at Douglas, and everything I’ve learned here, and use that toward all my future achievements.” 

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