Staying Epic during covid -- Epic Youth Servics needed more than ever

·6 min read

November 26, 2020 - Jeremy Prete (pictured above) began Epic Youth Services because of a moment in his childhood when someone reached out to mentor him and changed the course of his life. Prete moved to Cardston shortly after his parents divorced when he was 12 years old, and he remembers vividly the moment he walked past some kids from the football team who told him he didn’t belong. He believed them -- he hated his life, hated the town, and had no friends. One day he was walking up the hill with a slurpee in hand when the coach of the football team drove up, a stranger to Prete, and asked him to try out for the team because he was the right size for football. Walking up to tryouts Jeremy recognized the same boys he had seen earlier that year and he almost turned around, but coach Floyd Baxter saw him coming and told him he was where he needed to be. Baxter and other coaches became mentors to Prete and changed the course of his life by finding him a place to belong. Football became Prete’s family and saved him in a time when he needed connection. Mentoring became a strong principle for Prete who has since coached football, basketball, and baseball and also been a mentor to kids he was teaching in his church’s seminary program. Working on the FCSS board and as president for Cardston Victims services Prete noticed that he couldn’t reach all the kids that needed mentoring through his sports and church circles, and he dreamed up the youth centre as a solution. On completion of his degree in clinical counselling he and his wife shut down their carpet cleaning business to fund the purchase of the building where Epic Youth Services was born.

Epic Youth services is a social and recreational centre intended primarily for use by youth by Junior and Senior High school students. The groups website states “Epic supports opportunities for youth to develop their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive abilities and to experience achievement, leadership, enjoyment, friendship, and recognition.” The building is strategically located near the middle school and High School so the services can be easily accessed by youth in the area. Prete has created many strategic partnerships with other stakeholders in the area such as Family and Community Support Services, Bridges of Hope, and Alberta Mentoring. With these allies he has many resources at his fingertips including some funding, help with legalese, and the ability to operate under charitable status.

Epic Youth services is indeed a not-for-profit service, meaning it is not run for personal gain. Prete is employed by Bridges of Hope as the director of services and makes a small salary in compensation for the long hours he puts in, but the job satisfaction is what keeps him coming back. Running his own company previously was more financially successful, but he says “it feels better at the end of the day even though my bank account is tiny. I don’t want to go home and feel like my day was a waste and I’ve squandered my existence. The connection with the kids is more impactful than a paycheque has ever been.” Prete also has been able to keep up a counselling business on the side called Foundations Family Counselling so that he can continue his important work at the youth centre and still provide for his family.

Running the youth centre is a big undertaking that Prete has taken on. It looks like arranging programming, counselling and connecting with youth, and also significant hours pouring over grant applications and fundraising efforts. Two major community fundraisers are the Home Run Derby and community discount cards. Only two days into the week and Prete has already applied for two grants on behalf of the centre. Resident grant-writer and in house counsellor, Prete is certified in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, sexual trauma, suicide risk assessment, anxiety and depression disorders, and more. Prete describes what the programs at the centre were like pre-COVID, with food, art therapy, open stage, karaoke night, jam sessions, mini and big concerts, slam poetry, joke offs, movie nights, video game tournaments, table game tournaments, knitting club, board and card game tournaments, relationship success courses, introduction to finance, a resource centre for homework help, resume writing aids, assistance with university applications, hygiene skills programs, teen tech awareness nights, and parent support groups. The programs, counselling services, and mentoring led to group dynamics that Prete says “had an energy and a pulse -- it was alive and every station was being used in the intended way. There were no cultural lines, no race or religion divisions, no kids at the top of the hill saying you don’t belong here”.

Running the youth centre during a pandemic has not been an easy task, and the youth centre has danced the pandemic pivot like all businesses and not-for-profit organizations. The children that had been accessing the centre are in more need of help now than ever, but only 15 at a time could sign up to participate in any given program prior to further restrictions this week. There are still about 500 kids registered at the centre, but recruitment is down because of school closures last year. Further restrictions put in place by the government this week will cause even more disruption of services to the youth needing connection in the Cardston community. Prete is continually adjusting as new government regulations emerge, but has been able to start new programs to keep EPIC alive and well in the community.

Pandemic Epic is running a food hamper program along with FCSS through which they provide food to families in the area, the youth centre also arranged for a free back to school shopping day where youth could choose new to them clothes from a couple thousand pieces that had been donated, and they have created a 24-hour local help phone/text line so community members can access free counselling, food hampers, and hygiene products. Prete is constantly envisioning and creating an adaptable path through the pandemic to reach the youth who need this community program most. He is connecting with individual kids and groups on zoom and he has purchased over 200 stockings that he has stuffed with goodies he can drop off door to door while doing mental health check-ins with kids who haven’t been able to spend as much time at the centre recently. Covid has caused an uproar in many people’s lives, leaving them with the feeling that they are hanging on to the edge of a cliff with their fingernails. Jeremy Prete and Epic youth services, however, are still around trying to catch people before they fall, Empowering People and Inspiring Change -- keeping the heart of Epic alive no matter what 2020 throws at them.

Elizabeth Thompson-Christensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star