Mentoring youth has been key to Yoachim's work

Mon. Aug. 11/14

Working on gas pipelines and moving from hotel to hotel throughout his 20s, Bill Yoachim had spent much of his youth being angry.

Something needed to change, and that shift came when a counsellor and friend asked him where his simmering anger came from, he knew he needed to tackle the problem at its source.

At the age of 27, he decided to report being victimized while playing sports as a youth.

Taking that step was an action that would serve to transform his life, and it set him on a path of advocating for youth and families that continues today.

On Thursday Yoachim, now the executive director of the Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services Society, returned from an event in Portland where he was awarded the 2014 Community MVP as a representative chosen by the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team.

Through it all, Yoachim says it is in connecting more deeply with his Snuneymuxw community that he found his greatest source of strength and knowledge.

"I had no clue that spring day in May what was going to happen, but after I reported it to the police as an adult, I felt free. I remember standing on top of the stairs at the police station.

"I had a good cry on top of those stairs by myself, and I felt free," said Yoachim.

"Part of that whole deal was getting over the personal guilt and shame of being in a bad place and just sort of releasing that. And sharing it, even with the RCMP, was the start of the healing process."

From there, Yoachim went back to school, earning a degree in First Nations studies from Vancouver Island University and then a degree in social work at the University of Victoria.

It swiftly became apparent to Yoachim that working with and helping mentor the community's youth was a primary focus.

He became the recreation director at the Snuneymuxw Youth Centre and worked with them for years while he finished his schooling.

With a broadening perspective, Yoachim began to realize that he could address youth issues on an even deeper and more sustainable level if he began to work with the whole family unit.

"One of the hardest days of my life was having to resign from the Snuneymuxw youth centre, because I had such a passion and a love and commitment for our children and peoples," he said. "But I wanted to work more with children and family at a more serious level in terms of doing preventative work."

He took a job with the Ministry of Children and Families, and was soon voted in as a councillor for the nation in 2002.

By 2008 Yoachim had joined Kw'umut Lelum, a society centred on First Nations families and youth.

Recognizing, among other problems, the high percentage of aboriginal youth in care, the Kw'umut Lelum organization has been steadily building towards taking over the duties of full child protection work, which they are now beginning to do in some of the nine-member nations they serve.

"Unfortunately our people are beautiful and the parenting is there, it's just the poverty takes over," he said.

"I've seen poverty at levels that saddens me and sickens me, that in a country like Canada there's third world and even worse conditions in our backyard." In a damning report released last fall taking aim at the federal government, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, singled out Kw'umut Lelum for praise and highlighted the organization's work.

The key to Kw'umut Lelum's approach, and success, is in utilizing the vast cultural resources and knowledge in problem solving available right in their own community.

"Our basic model, whenever there is a family struggle, whether it's a mild case or an extreme case, is focused around the circle," said Yoachim.

"Basically we've over-complicated a really simple process where we can go back, to where the decision-making pre (European) contact was a circle. And the answer is within a circle. The answer is not with me, or with a social worker.

"We shouldn't be expected to be, and we are not, the experts. The experts and the answers are within the family."

In this vein, Yoachim said he sees his role as simply a "broker" between elders and community members who have that traditional wisdom and skills and the families and children who need it.

In addition to his work with Kw'umut Lelum, Yoachim will also continue his work as the co-founder and organizer of the annual Hope and Health movement, an event that utilizes soccer to inspire hope and health in local communities, and for which his Community MVP award just earned the charity a $10,000 grand prize from MLS Works.