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Grad student helps launch drop-in centre for homeless youth

Tamara Kowalska was working downtown at the Milk Coffee Bar when a young girl came in and requested a glass of water, and then asked if there would be a charge for it. Kowalska quenched her thirst for free, and later that day while watching a documentary on homeless teens in the area, she recognized the girl was one of the subjects in the film.

The connection she made was something of an epiphany for the master’s student in communications and social justice and has served as a source of inspiration in her efforts to help launch a new drop-in centre for homeless youth that officially opens its doors today.

“There was someone who was just asking for a glass of water, and she was so grateful,” said Kowalska, who earned an undergraduate degree in education from Boston University in 1992. “She wasn’t asking for money or food. She just wanted one of the most basic things that we need. That’s one of the things that sustained me through this whole process of opening this centre, which hasn’t always been easy.”

The Windsor Youth Centre, located in a former restaurant at 1321 Wyandotte East, opens today after months of preparation, renovating, fund raising and hard work. Intended for people between 16 and 20, the centre is open to any homeless youth who just need a hot meal, a place to clean their clothes, do their homework or socialize with people over a cup of coffee, a book or a board game. And it’s open from 5-10 p.m. every single day of the year.

“We wanted to make it consistent, because there’s so much inconsistency in their lives,” said Kowalska.  “And we’re not open during school hours, because we want them to go to school.”

Along with her partner George Bozanich, Kowalska has been a driving force behind the centre’s opening. Both members of Lincoln Road United Church, they eventually joined the Faith in Action committee, an offshoot of Essex Presbytery, the oversight organization of all the area’s United Church of Canada churches.

After watching Hidden, a locally produced documentary about homeless teens in Essex County, the committee decided to make youth homelessness their cause. They went to Essex Presbytery and eventually secured a $20,000 grant to get the centre up and running. Since then they’ve been working hard at renovating and stocking it.

“People have been very generous with their time and talents,” she said. “We haven’t spent a single penny on labour. That’s what’s been so amazing about this.”

Kowalska said they made a conscious decision not to open the centre in a church because they feared young people may be reluctant to use it if they thought there would be attempts to indoctrinate them while they were there.

“Besides, we’re serving the entire community, not just the Christian community,” she said. “We want to make sure that it’s a very inclusive and safe space.”

The centre’s supporters – many who are University of Windsor student volunteers – have already been working closely with area social service agencies and based on what they’ve been told, are expecting a solid number of young people to be using the facility.

“People have been telling us they can’t wait for us to open because they have kids to send to us,” she said. “There really is a need for this.”

Kowalska is still finding time to keep up with her graduate work, which is focused on the commodification of the practice of yoga. On the surface, that might seem unrelated to her work at the youth centre, but she says there’s definitely a common thread.

“My motivation for being in both programs is the same,” she said, “to serve the community and to create some kind of positive change for our world.”

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