Kayla Wallace has never strayed far from St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club in Toronto.
The 21-year-old first became a volunteer at St. Alban’s during high school to complete her volunteer hours. From there, her involvement in the community only grew.
“I was approaching my 16th birthday and obviously I wanted to get a job,” Wallace said. “I was really worried and really timid to apply there.”
St. Alban’s, a non-profit organization, strives to help children and youth reach their full potential with after school and out-of-school programs.
The brick building nestled in the Seaton Village community along Bathurst Street boasts a pool, gym, art room and recording studio for members.
Anna Sturino is the director of operations at St. Alban’s, overseeing programming, funding, sponsorship, and training.
Sturino had known Wallace as a volunteer and approached her with a job offer.
“That completely took me by surprise,” Wallace said. “Most places that you’re employed at, it’s cool, but there is not as much sense of community but at St. Alban’s it’s like, they approached me when they realized how well I integrated into that. That was surprising because I’ve never had that before. That really warmed my heart.”
Wallace started working as a camp counsellor in the summer and a group leader during the school year.
“When you work there, you do become really close with everyone,” she said.
St. Alban’s has helped many members manage problems and feel a part of the family.
Lounging comfortably on a couch upstairs with other youth members is Selena Sousa-Sampson, 17, who has been going to St. Alban’s since she was a toddler.
“When I was growing up, I went through the same problems as any kid would and I kept to myself. People started noticing I was quiet and I’m usually this outgoing person,” she said. “I started talking about it and that’s when I joined ‘Girls on the Move’ which is a program for young girls. We talked about our problems and they helped us through it.”
Heavyn Beals, 15, had just moved to Toronto from Nova Scotia and started coming to St. Alban’s in September. But it looks like she has been a part of the community for years.
“Everyone is so open and like, ‘Oh, give me a hug!’” Beals said. “I know almost everybody in this building.”
Just then, a girl from one of the younger groups spotted Beals and ran to give her a hug while Beals laughed.
Courtney Dorrington, 28, is a former youth member who went to St. Alban’s as a teen and young adult. When she became pregnant with her son, the community helped her.
“Anna Sturino was super supportive, along with everyone else while I was pregnant because I was young. They were very much like a family. They threw me two baby showers,” Dorrington said. “In terms of my career, St. Alban’s definitely moulded me by teaching me how to be on time, and being accountable for my mistakes. I grew up in this building.”
Dorrington works in the Women’s Inpatient Unit at the Centre for Addition and Mental Health (CAMH). Her seven-year-old son now participates in programs at St. Alban’s.
Wallace shared her own experience with how St. Alban’s helped her decide on a post-secondary path.
“I got to the point where I was super conflicted about where to go to school. It was giving me anxiety,” Wallace said. “I sat down and I talked to Anna. She was pretty much like, ‘Listen, you need to choose something that you don’t mind having to do for three or four years. You don’t want to be in school hating your life. That’s going to be a really big stressor.’ Anna really helped me through that. That one conversation really took the pressure off me to go in one specific direction.”
Wallace decided on an interior design program at George Brown College. After graduating, she enrolled in an architectural design program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where she is in her second year.
Now, she has the opportunity to use her skills to give back to St. Alban’s.
Each year, St. Alban’s holds a fundraising event to help reconstruct parts of the building. The focus this year will be on the art room on the second floor of the building.
Sturino, one of the people in charge, enlisted Wallace’s help to redesign the room.
“We wanted to involve Kayla because she was into the arts,” Sturino said. “It means more to me if our former kids are attached to the project. It’s also a chance for them to give back a bit to what the club gave them.”
As a former group leader who led activities in the art room, Wallace knows what’s needed. She says the functionality of the room could be improved.
“Like the height of the tables for different age groups, it’s hard because the little kids are sitting on stools because they can’t see,” Wallace said. “So, I’m not moving any walls but I’m re-designing. The current tables that are there I’m going to take out and I’ll be bringing in new furniture.”
Her job is to design the photos to show how the new art room will look.
“It will be more efficient,” Sturino said. “We can run a more enhanced program in there. More age groups will be able to use it more efficiently.
“I think the lasting impression will be to see how many kids utilize that space and become artists or something else because of the creativity and imagination they gain in that space, and to see how many of them take that as a career path and make something great of it and then come back and share with us.”