At a meeting held at the Williams Lake Fire Department, youth between the ages of eight and 11 sat patiently, asking firefighters a number of questions about their job.
When the Q&A finished, the youth were treated to a tour of the fire hall, complete with climbing through fire trucks, trying on a hazmat suit, and testing the heavy breathing apparatuses fire fighters carry on their backs.
The event was a regular meeting for the 1st Williams Lake Junior Cadets, a new group for youth in Williams Lake that has been running since September.
Normally, meetings are held weekly in the basement space beneath the Royal Canadian Legion, but founder Crystal Sheridan makes sure to get her junior cadets around the community, doing different lessons and exploring different ways of giving back.
Sheridan began the project about a year ago, creating the Williams Lake Junior Cadets Society, after she saw a need for affordable youth programs for youth aged 10 and 11.
She’s worked with the army cadets support group for the last four years, a program that takes youth aged 12 and up.
“I had a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, that’s a great program, when can my kids join’ when their kids were about 10 or 11. Then, by the time they are 12 we’ve lost them to hockey or swimming, or even gangs.”
She says the program fits a need with many young people in the community.
“There always seems to be kids who are at risk youth that join these programs and it gives them a sense of belonging. They all fit in there and it gives them a place to fit, when they don’t fit in with their peers elsewhere, and there is some organization and structure to it,” she says.
While the program is connected to both the army cadet and sea cadet groups, and teaches some basic cadet skills like knots, drills, and uniform care, it also dives into other areas, like mental health and anxiety coping strategies, volunteering and inclusion.
At a recent fundraiser the group hosted, through a pet photo fundraiser and cupcake day for the Williams Lake SPCA, they raised $1,110 for the animal care group.
Since the program began in September, Sheridan says the group has grown to 20 cadets.
She divides them into two companies (to separate siblings) who then report back to their cadet leader, older cadet volunteers and then the adults in the room.
A normal meeting will include a lesson, as well as a variety of games to keep children active and attentive. Sheridan is hoping the junior cadets pick up on safety, conflict resolution, problem solving, respect and responsibility, through lessons about any variety of things, from healthy living to fire safety.
“A lot of our kids have anxiety or something underlying, and I found that they all fit in well here and they are developing friendships – so some of the kids are hanging out at school, that didn’t before, and kids who were being bullied at school because they are different now have peer support.”
It also acts as a feeder for the different cadet groups in Williams Lake, so youth, if they want, can choose to join either army or sea cadets after they age out.
The program is also completely free, thanks to grants and donations. She hopes it will help youth who have issues with mental health, and provide a safe alternative to joining a gang.
“I want to remove that economic barrier and I find especially the types of kids that generally seek out these kinds of programs don’t always have the means to play hockey, for example.”
While the age range is flexible and it is generally for youth aged nine to 11, they accept new cadets at any time, and those looking to get involved can send Sheridan a message through the group’s Facebook page: 1st Williams Lake Junior Cadets Society.
The youth involved also enjoy it:
“We get to do a whole bunch of activities and play games,” said Arianna Norquay, 10.
“I get to learn new things and I get to learn how to do different things and learn how to take care of outfits,” said Marilyn Hill, 11.