How two guitars and two red plastic chairs became a lifeline for Vancouver’s homeless youth

Making music and art may feel positive and life affirming for many people. But for youth who are street-involved or experiencing homelessness, creative expression is often described as vital to survival.

Hundreds of Vancouver’s most vulnerable youth have found their haven in the EA Media Room at Directions Youth Services Centre. Lined with musical instruments, computers, gaming consoles, and a fully operational recording studio, the Media Room has become a powerful outlet for youth to express themselves creatively while taking a break from their daily struggles.

The informal, judgement-free environment fosters trust and gives Directions Youth Services staff the opportunity to listen, engage and offer supports that can help youth transition to increased stability relating to their physical and mental health, finances and housing.

The Directions media program started in 2005 with just two guitars, two red plastic chairs and Colin; a determined volunteer. But no one expected it would soon become a valuable lifeline for youth.

Back then Colin Ford was working as a sales manager for a musical instrument retailer on Richards and Hastings Street in Vancouver.

One hot July afternoon, he spotted a young man in a tattered, black leather jacket sitting on a stool playing a tobacco sunburst Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. His musical ability seemed pretty rudimentary, but that didn’t appear to faze the young man. He was having the time of his life.

Colin observed as the youth fumbled through one chord to the next, and walked over to ask if he could teach him a few tips. Excitedly handing over the guitar, the youth said: “Yes! Yes please! I can’t afford guitar lessons. I’m homeless, and I’m on income assistance. The music books are too hard to understand.”

Colin showed him a couple of chords which the youth eagerly absorbed. With just a guitar between Colin and the youth, conversation flowed. The two strangers were able to connect on a deeper level—anonymously and without judgment. And the youth’s new-found knowledge sparked a proud smirk as he plucked away at the strings.

Keen to volunteer his guitar skills to inspire more young people, Colin spoke to several youth agencies, and was eventually connected to Directions Youth Services—a collection of services and locations supporting Vancouver’s homeless and at-risk youth—who invited him to give it a shot.

On his first day, Colin set up two red plastic chairs and two guitars he had donated in a large, empty room at the Directions Youth Services 24-hour drop in centre.

Initially, he spent long hours on one of the plastic chairs, staring at the open door, calling out to the youth as they passed by the room: “Hey! Do you want to learn how to play guitar?” Sometimes, youth ignored him; other times curiosity drew them in.

Six weeks later Colin found himself encircled by 15 youth eager to play guitar. All it took was the desire to make a difference and the time and patience to do so.

Gradually youth began opening up during the music sessions. It became a weekly highlight for them, with many reporting the program reduced stress, kept them out of trouble, helped them make friends, and increased their confidence and self-worth.

As the program’s popularity grew, Colin (now a Directions employee) turned to his music industry connections to raise money for more gear. In 2008, he met Wendell Harlow, Corporate Giving Manager of video game giant Electronic Arts (EA). With the help of their Vancouver outreach team, Colin expanded the music lessons to a full media program and upgraded to a larger room. Over the years, EA provided game consoles with the latest games, computers, ran workshops for youth, their artists decorated the concrete walls with bright, colourful murals for the youth to enjoy.

This month Directions Youth Services and EA celebrate 10 years of partnership, and Colin can hardly believe how far the media program has come. He says the breadth of untapped talent never ceases to amaze him. He has seen youth grow in ways he couldn’t have predicted, and witnessed many of them conquering their fears and self-doubts. A youth once told Colin the two things that frightened them most were being in a crowd of people and singing out loud. A few months later, Colin watched this youth bring down the house at the Waterfront Theatre singing in front of 250 people. Other Directions youth have gone on to pursue film school and careers in acting, opera, journalism, the recording arts, social work, and psychology.

By engaging youth through media and the arts, Colin and the Directions staff can help youth gain confidence to make positive choices in their lives moving forward. The media model works and Colin would love to see more programs like the one at Directions across Canada.

All it takes to start is two guitars and two red chairs.

To learn more about the Media Room at Directions Youth Services Centre or to support at-risk youth with your donation visit www.directionsyouthservices.ca.

ABOUT DIRECTIONS YOUTH SERVICES

Run by Family Services of Greater Vancouver, Directions Youth Services is a collection of services and locations supporting youth who are at-risk, street-involved or experiencing homelessness. This includes a 24/7 drop-in centre, outreach teams, pre-employment programs, two safe houses, and a youth detox centre. The trauma-informed and client centred philosophy creates safety for youth to access a full spectrum of supports including primary care, mental health and substance use resources.