Inside The Alex Youth Health Centre there is a tiny office that’s covered with more than 70 black-and-white photos. In one, a young man in an Adidas ball cap looks off in the distance. A few shots show a teenage girl cradling a newborn while another print captures a smiling shorthaired girl with piercings.
Danene Lenstra points out several faces on the wall and remembers the countless kids who have passed through the doors at The Alex. Some were homeless youth who had been neglected by family, others were battling drug and alcohol problems while a good number were unprepared parents-to-be.
Lenstra photographs most of the at-risk kids who visit the drop-in medical centre and is continually adding to the growing collage. Last year alone, 2,000 kids used the centre. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this year we were at 3,000 kids,” she says.
Anyone who works with Lenstra knows her for her fairness and direct no-guff attitude. She understands how key it is to build trust and constant relationships with the kids because in some cases, she may be the closest thing to family they’ve got. “When they walk in through the doors of the Alex, there’s someone here with a smile on their face, who’s happy to see them and glad that they’re still alive,” she explains. “They might not get that anywhere in their lives.”
In 2008, Lenstra started the Alex Youth Health Centre, a program at The Alex that provides at-risk street kids with food, hygiene products, clothing, access to support programs and medical services. When the program started it had only one nurse and doctor. Today, thanks to Lenstra’s guidance as the program’s lead, it has five doctors, two nurses, a counsellor, a psychiatrist, two medical office assistants and five youth outreach specialists.
As the program lead, Lenstra helps with fundraising to pay for the program, as well as managing the entire team of outreach staff that help give at-risk kids a second chance. But her grand goal is to grow the program to the point that it is no longer needed.
“I’d really like to work myself out of a job,” she says. “To one day say that I’m not needed because there are no more homeless kids.”
Why she’s a Top 40:
Lenstra helped design and now runs a youth program at The Alex that offers support and services to more than 2,000 at-risk kids in Calgary. She’s able to expertly handle front-line work with volatile teens as well as high-level strategic approaches with corporate donors all in the name of ending youth homelessness.
The key to her success:
“We don’t believe in just second or third chances for these kids. We believe in twenty-second chances. It never ends. There are so many paths you can go down; it’s choice not chance. You choose where you go and there are influences, good and bad, all along the way.”