Culture  A place to belong

DESTA, Montreal's Black Youth Network

Just outside of Georges-Vanier Metro Station, DESTA is hidden on the corner of the block next to a small convenience store, and youth are casually smoking cigarettes on the front steps. It’s a Saturday morning, the street is quiet, and the wind is brisk along the streets of Little Burgundy.

I knock and am immediately greeted by Frances Waithe, DESTA’s executive director, co-founder, and youth counsellor. Trailing her obediently are two young children who both peer up at me inquisitively, though they make no motion to say anything, hands grasping their toys. Waithe shakes my hand and ushers me into the building.

Desta, as it turns out, is also the name of a six-year-old girl, clinging onto her mom’s arm as she takes me to the basement, the recreation room, newly renovated courtesy of local shoe company Aldo. The walls are covered with murals painted by the participants, with the word “DestaCafé” written in bubble letters. The cafe is an entrepreneurial incentive for the youth participants, as a part of their employability program. The organization also runs many workshops, such as their upcoming “Affordable Housing Workshop” on November 15. The two children, Desta and Elias, shoot hoops from across the room after politely requesting  that Waithe and I move off the makeshift court.

The organization’s acronym stands for “Dare Every Soul to Achieve” and started as a six-month pilot project from a grant provided by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Once known as the Padua Center, it was a modest one-room employment-focused initiative that involved twelve youth participants. After sitting down, Waithe described it as an “outreach program […] that developed into a holistic program that addresses all their needs.”

Five years later, DESTA now includes a church, a meditation room, an alternative school called Lion Wolf School, and a recreation room that focuses on the three pillars of the DESTA mission: continued learning, health and personal development, and employability. After years of efforts, the building has been renovated and reinvented to provide a safe, open space for underprivileged black youth in the greater Montreal area.

Being a young organization isn’t always easy. DESTA is oftentimes understaffed or underfunded and many of their participants are volunteers. The demographic of the involved youth range from 18 years old to 32.

However, DESTA isn’t without its success stories. Waithe fondly recalls memories of a few youth whom she considers to have embodied the mission of DESTA. “I’ve watched a young man we started working with become a member of our team…I hired him as our fundraiser,” she says to me. “No experience, but just – charming.” Today, that young man has launched his own small business, and above all, is happy. “Which,” Waithe mentions, “is what’s truly important.”

At this time, Desta runs into the room and whispers something into Waithe’s ear. Her relaxed expression turns tense for a moment. “Okay,” she whispers under her breath sternly. “Tell him, don’t say those things.”

When Desta rushes to tell off her brother, it’s clear to me why Waithe is in this position. A mother of eight and a foster mother, she has the air of someone dedicated, strong, and selfless. “My mother was a caregiver,” she explains, “so I guess this is my calling.”

This trait, along with the relentless passion and love she has given to the organization, is what keeps DESTA running. She understands the problems these youth face: unaffordable housing, employment and school. Through their Individual Support Services DESTA has helped many of its participants in seeking employment, and have aided students in reaching CEGEP. Once they reach their goals, DESTA helps them maintain the track they are on and follows up to improve their situation. “We push them to the next level, we prepare them before they go, and they are representing DESTA. We put accountability on them.”

DESTA is a safe place, an open environment, and a place to call home. A little glassy-eyed, Waithe looks back on the youth who have made themselves a part of this world. “There are a lot of family vibes here.” She says to me, “I’ve heard youth say that ‘this is my home,’ and I have them go to the meditation room just to cry. Sometimes my youth counsellor is bothered by it,” she adds, “But I always tell her it’s good.” She smiles to herself. “It’s a good thing they can come here and cry.”

For students who wish to get involved, DESTA is always looking for staff volunteers, such as tutors, administration, and participants. It opens up doors and opportunities for those who may not otherwise have access.

After the interview, Waithe takes me upstairs to the classroom where Elias and Desta are playing on computers. The room is beautifully furnished, with a balcony overlooking the street under the sun. A chalkboard is wiped clean and in the middle is a table set for eight. As I admire the room, she explains the ultimate purpose of DESTA. “A big chunk is advocacy. It’s being a voice for our youth.” And that’s what small nonprofit organizations do: they are the voices for those who don’t have one themselves.