In the past 20 years, Mark Cherrington has worked with over 15000 at risk youths who have entered his life through his work as a youth worker with the Youth Criminal Defense Office or his volunteering outside of work. These children and youth are from all different backgrounds from petty crimes like chocolate bar thefts to more serious offenses including homicide. Mark explains, “My job there is to look at the systemic issues that get young people into conflict with the law.”
Through 23 years in the field, Mark has learned that being a youth worker goes beyond the hours set out by the terms of employment and into the realm of a lifestyle. “I think that for the vast majority of people in my field, there’s no choice but to volunteer. If you’ve developed an emotional connection with a child or a family, the 9 to five just doesn’t work. A lot of the front line work, volunteerism, is at 3 in the morning crawling out of bed to go get a kid, finding them a safe place to live, getting them a sandwich. As I reflect back, a lot of my impact with kids hasn’t had to do with my work; it’s had to do with volunteering.”
Mark isn’t your average guy, which isn’t hard to realize when you sit down and start talking with him, or read his social media feeds. Over the years, in addition to working as a youth worker, he’s been a part of developing restorative justice programs run by youth (YRAP), radio shows to share the voices of incarcerated youth (Youth Menace) and a legal challenge to allow youth to vote. The Youth Restorative Action Project is run entirely by youth and is the only justice committee in the world to be run this way, and has won the Commonwealth Youth Gold Award and the National Ron Wiebe Restorative Justice Award. Youth Menace was aired in 9 countries and on 64 stations and presented the views and stories of incarcerated youth and what effect the social system has on them. It was nominated by UNICEF/One Radio as the best radio show for young people. However, when you talk to Mark, he’ll say the kids he works with drive these projects.
Early on, there was a pivotal moment that inspired Mark to continue to work in social work and shaped his focus moving forward. As a young father, his first job in the field was in a group home, and his first shift was a solitary one overnight with nine kids under his care. While his employer gave him a panic button, there was no formal training. A few hours into his shift, after a telephone conversation with her mother, a suicidal young charge snatched a knife out of the kitchen and bluntly told Mark that she was going to kill herself, and that there was nothing he could do.
“And as she’s running across the front yard I tripped her, and it was kind of a silly thing to do, and she falls and the knife falls away from her. And she stands up and the knife is on the ground between us, and I said to her, ‘I’m not going to let you touch that knife.’ … And then I had no restraint training no first aid, and she went for the knife. So I did the only thing I could think of doing and I closed my fist and I hit her. I knocked her out… And there were kids all around me and I heard this kid say, ‘Oh dude, you’re so fired.’ I thought my whole career in social work was done.”
In an effort to calm all of the kids down after the incident, Mark took $10 from the petty cash and took the kids for slurpees and once they were all in bed, he began writing report after report about what had happened. The next morning, he was called into a meeting with a panel of people from the group home’s administration. He was given a chance to speak for himself at the beginning of the meeting and he began to explain what had happened with the girl and the knife. As he was describing, he was interrupted.
“…As I’m explaining they look at each other and they look at their papers, and this one guy interrupts me. “We’re not here to talk about the girl. We’re here to talk about the ten dollars you took from petty cash.” And I realized in that moment, that second, that nobody really cared about that kid. That some white, middle classed guy had just close fisted punched out a 13yo aboriginal girl, and no one gave a shit about that girl. No one could care less about that girl. And I might have been right, I might have been wrong… but I should have been held into account for that. It should have been looked at, I should have been looked at. And no one ever asked that girl what she felt like, what she wanted. It was all about that ten dollars. And I realized that the system was messed.”
“A few years ago I got this email, from the older sister of that girl. She explained a lot, ‘my younger sister was all about hope. Hope, hope, hope. Hope she could get off the street. Hope she could break the addiction and get off crack. Hope she could find a safe place to live. So it made total sense when she wrote hope around the jacket of a bullet. Hope was the last thought that went through her mind.’ I realized then, she didn’t make it. She had killed herself. I don’t think that I was part of that decision, but I was part of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was part of the system that crushed her, that gave her no opportunity to be the best person that she could be. It’s something that I think isn’t the typical story that social workers would say, but they’ve all worked with kids, and they’ve all failed, ultimately. But it’s something that drives you forward, that says the next kid that comes along, I’m not going to let that happen. I’m not going to let the system push that kid around, I’m not going to let that kid feel like a number, forgotten. It’s not about ten bucks, it’s about that child, and that’s why I’m here.”
“You have to take the step, sometimes you have to create your opportunity. The opportunity isn’t just there, you don’t just walk into the food bank and roll up your sleeves. That’s one aspect of volunteerism, but if you want to make a difference I think you need to commit yourself, that everything you do is for community it’s for those you’re trying to serve. I think the most importing aspect about volunteering is compassion. If you have compassion, you have resilience, patience, advocacy, and tenacity. You have an ability to look beyond the corners of the horizon. … The best way to fix a problem is through volunteerism. Volunteerism is about seeing the gaps in your community and filling those gaps- and to do that you need to step out your front door and take a hard look around.”