GLACE BAY – Dave Sawler has a vision for transformational change in his community – and he’s well on his way to making that vision a reality.
The co-founder of Lighthouse Church and Undercurrent Youth Center in Glace Bay received unanimous support from the Mayor and Council of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality earlier this month for a new waterfront community hub in the old mining town.
“If you want to bring about community transformation — not improvement, transformation — you have to do something at the scale of real numbers,” Sawler said of the large-scale, custom-built center he proposes.
“In my hometown, there are over 2,000 children and young people today who don’t have the basics,” he told the mayor and council of CBRM during his April 12 presentation.
Sawler, who grew up in Glace Bay, returned home with his wife Shirley 17 years ago to start Lighthouse Church. At that time, he did not intend to be an advocate for the fight against poverty and addictions.
“I started as a pastor at Lighthouse (Church)…In my first seven or eight years at Glace Bay, every funeral I attended had to do with an overdose, accident or tragedy and it was mostly young people and adults. “, he recalls.
In 2010, Undercurrent Youth Center opened in Glace Bay, providing a safe space and a packed schedule of programs including sports and recreation, life skills and arts programs.
Since then, Sawler has seen up close the grim statistics from Nova Scotia Health’s Glace Bay: the highest rates of opioid-related deaths and self-harm among young people in the province, one of the highest call rates per capita highest for substance abuse-related emergency health care, the highest rate of young people living with grandparents because their parents cannot care for them, and almost 40% of children living below the poverty line.
“It can seem a bit overwhelming. We’ve always had a drinking problem in Cape Breton but now we have opiates and other drugs on top of that and that’s where we are today but (another) thing I discovered is that it is not true that things cannot change.
Sawler points to Iceland as a model of a community that has managed to break the cycle of poverty and drug addiction in a generation using a “kill switch event”.
“In CBRM, we have had unresolved issues of child poverty and substance abuse for 20 years and the situation has not improved. The Icelandic strategy is simply this: to break a cycle, you just have to save a generation and teach them how to raise the next generation healthy,” he said.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Twenty years ago, the small island nation of just over 280,000 people had one of the highest rates of youth drinking in Europe, nearly a quarter of young people aged 15 and 16 smoked cigarettes and almost as many had tried cannabis. .
The solution for Iceland, and the solution Sawler advocates for Glace Bay and other struggling communities in Cape Breton, is this: provide healthy alternatives – sports, music and arts programs , life skills programs, for example — and ensuring that “no child or young person is left behind,” Sawler said.
“In Glace Bay, the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do anything on this scale and so that’s what we’re offering,” Sawler said, acknowledging it’s an ambitious undertaking in Glace. Bay, but is encouraged by the neighboring community of New Waterford. where construction has begun on an $8 million community hub that will house the Undercurrent Youth Center as well as a health and wellness center and a new high school.
Sawler is working with the province on final plans and funding for the mixed-use building in Glace Bay — $15 million for the building and an additional $500,000 a year for 15 years for programming — and he has identified a site owned by the municipality and province as a potential location overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, which ticks a box for potential Develop Nova Scotia funding earmarked for waterfront development.
CBRM has agreed to provide principle support for Undercurrent’s project in the preliminary stages, meaning the board has agreed to work with the group to negotiate ownership or rental of the property provided it is deemed suitable and that the necessary funds are secured.
District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger pointed out that the land had been purchased by the CBRM for a new sewage treatment facility and park, but said he hoped that with community consultation, projects could “coexist”.
“At the end of the day, I really hope it can work out,” Bruckschwaiger said.
The Council’s support allows the project to move forward with provincial funding to survey the land and draw up the architectural plans. Sawler told the mayor and councilors he would return to present the final plan in six to 12 months.
In the meantime, Undercurrent is currently renovating a temporary space in New Waterford and has begun offering programs there until construction of the new community hub is complete in three years. The registered charity has also acquired a second building in Glace Bay and is expanding programming for young people in this community, including a creative space, recreation equipment for families to borrow, a music space and a hall. Lego.
Most programs include a meal. Sawler said the center can sometimes accommodate more than 100 children at the same time.
“We have children who are here all the time. They actually don’t care about the program, they just want to be here,” he said.
“Our numbers indicate that we have more troubled children at younger ages, and we know that childhood trauma is an indicator that your community will remain in a cycle of dependency and dysfunction. It seems like every number we can find indicates that we are getting worse. How could we not do something to turn the tide on this?