For Kelly Holmes, Executive Director of Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY), success is about bringing together “the right people, in the right places, at the right time, with the right options.”
Thanks to the right people in her life, she says, she chose a positive path. She credits the strong role models she had – the mentors and coaches who believed in her – for helping her find her feet…literally.
“In grade 8, I was caught smoking a joint in the bathroom at Gordon Bell,” recalls Holmes. “One of the school’s athletic coaches caught me in the act and I just booked it. I ran out of the bathroom and down the hall as fast as I could. The coach had some choices about what to do and eventually said, ‘If she can run that fast, I want her on the track team.’ And that’s where it all started.”
Track led to basketball, volleyball, and swimming. “Sports deterred me from making some bad choices,” she says. “More important, sports taught me about hard work, team, commitment, loyalty, adaptation, and more. These are the values I learned from my coaches, and these are the values that my staff and I share with the youth who come to see us at RaY. My coaches redirected me and gave me options. That’s what I try to do in my work.”
Through a leadership course at Gordon Bell High School, Holmes earned her Bronze Medallion at Sherbrook Pool which gave her the credentials to work as a lifeguard at neighbourhood wading pools for three summers, until she was 18.
Working at the pools – not to mention growing up with a bunch of brothers – taught her how to handle kids making bad decisions. Her ability to communicate with kids and redirect them was noticed pretty quickly by people in the community. Not only was she asked to take on wading pool assignments in tougher neighbourhoods, she was invited by community agencies to come on board as a casual worker doing street outreach and other community work in the inner-city. She dove right in, even while starting to attend university in pursuit of a degree in recreation studies.
“I had planned a conventional career path, but all of these interesting and rewarding opportunities started to come my way and I started to rethink my plan,” says Holmes. “I was starting to get this well-rounded exposure to issues facing youth-at-risk.”
She hasn’t had a CV in 25 years, but if she did, it would show stops at West Central Community Program, Children’s Home, Northwest Child and Family Services, Macdonald Youth Services, among other agencies working with marginalized youth and adult populations throughout Manitoba. By 2002, she had taken a full-time position at the Winnipeg offices of Operation Go Home (OGH), a national body working to repatriate runaways with their families. When she started at OGH, they were working with 80 kids a year in the city – a number that quickly started to decline.
“A lot of the kids were starting to tell us that they didn’t want to go home, that they felt safer on the street,” she says. “It was pretty clear that we needed to rebrand and re-organize.”
So, OGH merged with Powerhouse, an agency that was working with Osborne Village’s squeegee kids. Together, the two bodies formed RaY with Holmes at the helm.
RaY is an oasis for about 100 teens and young adults every day. They come in search of a hot meal, a shower, counselling, access to a computer, advice on housing and employment, health services, and simply a place to be heard and feel safe. They are treated without judgment and they are supported to the extent that resources allow. All RaY asks for in return is respectful behaviour.
“Some of our kids go missing. Some die. There is sadness in this place, but there is hope, too,” says Holmes. “There are many success stories of people who turned themselves around completely. We’ve got two people on staff here who used to be street kids using drugs.”
Holmes describes her work as “managing chaos” in the pursuit of social justice. She has a profound appreciation for the many leaders in the non-profit social services sector who soldier alongside her. She is frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy and the red tape she needs to navigate. And while she is deeply grateful for the significant generosity of Winnipeggers, she wishes she could spend a little less time securing funding. All of these things “fuel my fire,” she says.
Even after working with troubled youth in some way for over 30 years, Kelly Holmes is still passionate about the work and still up for the challenge. On more difficult or sadder days, she might recharge her batteries by tending her garden, belting out a few rock ’n’ roll tunes with her husband and their friends, or disappearing into a good book. And then she returns to RaY – the right place for so many youth in Winnipeg. A new day, a new opportunity to be that right person. Fiery. Determined. Empathetic. And hopeful.
“Without hope I am nothing,” she says.
Learn more about Resource Assistance for Youth at http://rayinc.ca