Fusion Youth Activity and Technology Centre is an organization that provides youth with opportunities to explore their interests, enhance their employment skills and experiences, and develop livelihoods.
Fusion’s approach is based on the understanding that deep-rooted personal interests underlie the drive for success in business, and in life. Fusion provides access to activities, equipment, facilities and professional support to encourage youth to find and develop these interests, and to reach their full potential. The Centre serves youth between the ages of 12 and 18 from the Oxford County region, and offers a range of programs and activities – from sports and recreation to cooking and the arts. Fusion also manages three social enterprises (SEs), which are embedded within recreational programming. The SEs in particular provide opportunities for youth to gain hands-on experience in areas of interest to them, and that may lead to employment in adult life.
Fusion is located in the town of Ingersoll, in Ontario’s Oxford County, between the cities of Woodstock and London. Ingersoll is a town of approximately 12,146 people, and is home to over 250 businesses that employ more than 8,000 people. The majority of people in Ingersoll work in manufacturing. As in many small Ontario communities, youth engagement is a key concern in Ingersoll. Fusion plays a key role in the community, providing youth engagement and development.
In 2003, research showing a relationship between youth crime and a lack of youth engagement prompted the Ingersoll Town Council to include youth engagement as a strategic direction in their 2003 Community Strategic Plan. As part of this process, a Youth Planning Group recommended creating both a permanent youth committee and a funded youth centre. In 2005, the Ingersoll Thames Centre opened. In 2006, after consultation with stakeholders including local youth, the centre became Fusion Youth Activity and Technology Centre. The purchase and renovation of a surplus school building that Fusion now inhabits was paid for by the Ingersoll Town Council and by the Rural Economic Development Fund from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
Since 2006, Fusion and its SEs have evolved in response to the interest and feedback received from young people programs. In 2007/8 Fusion began to pursue SEs that could give youth valuable work experience, employment, and training. Four social enterprises emerged: catering, computer repair and e-waste processing, sound recording, and multimedia production. The Ingersoll Town Council determined that Fusion’s SEs should not compete with other local businesses, and should ideally offer services that did not already exist in the area. As a result, the catering SE was phased out. A consultant was hired for business planning with each of the three remaining SEs. The business plans concluded that each SE would require a staff person, and that each should run like a business. Despite these recommendations, Council determined that the SEs should be integrated into the operations of Fusion and be run as programs instead.
Fusion and its SEs are not structured as traditional businesses. Fusion is municipally owned, and operates within Ingersoll’s Parks and Recreation Department. This Department four cost centers: an arena, a community centre, a retirement home, and Fusion. Fusion’s SEs are embedded in Fusion’s recreational programming, and are part of a continuum of programs that guide youth through engagement, development, and livelihood exploration phases. Staff is hired for each recreational program, and work in the SEs as required. To decrease the vulnerability of Fusion overall, there is a distinct line between the recreational programs and the SEs; if funding for SEs is jeopardized, it will not affect the recreational activities.
To access Fusion’s programs and services, youth purchase an annual $5 membership. Programs include training in music, audio recording, art, graphic design, photography, television production, video editing, digital game development, computer repair, radio broadcasting, fitness, recreation, nutrition, cooking, and entrepreneurship. In addition to the daily programs (3 to 4 per night or 15 to 18 programs per week), other youth activities and services include a skate park, billiards, a lounge, Game Zone, an Internet Café, and an onsite food shop.
The staffing structure includes a manager, coordinators, and front line staff who all participate in organizing, planning, and running daily programs and the SEs. Staff and volunteers supervise, mentor, facilitate, coach, and educate youth. Staff and volunteers are also involved in applying for new funding, completing program evaluations, writing funding reports, building local relationships, and seeking opportunities for professional development. Staff plays a vital role in identifying SE opportunities for the youth they work directly with. Finally, two committees drive SE program development at Fusion: a programs and services committee and a SE committee. The former is composed of staff that regularly works with youth; they bring forward the youths’ ideas to the SE committee. The SE committee then makes decisions on the youths’ ideas to determine if they are realistic and can be incorporated into the SEs.
The Fusion Model
Fusion has developed an integrated model for youth engagement and development, offered through a continuum of programs and services. The continuum of programming starts with recreational programs. Depending on their interests, youth may choose to become involved in one or more recreational activities. These activities are fun and engaging, but they also teach interpersonal skills, promote community involvement, and inspire interest in a variety of career paths.
The SEs link recreational activities to livelihood skills and begin to train youth in an employment setting. Youth who complete recreational programs and demonstrate particular interest in one of the SE areas are encouraged to pursue further training through the SEs. The SEs provide the opportunity to continue building on interpersonal and community involvement components, while providing hands-on training in an area of interest. Within each of the SEs, youth learn about the industry, gain specific skills related to it. For example, a young person may participate in creating, compiling and editing videos, or helping to design advertisements for local companies or community members. Wherever possible, the youth are paid for their work
The SureStart program then bridges the transition from the SEs into post-secondary education or employment. This program takes young people through a self-exploration phase that allows them to plan for to college or university, starting a business, working, or pursuing a specific career. Fusion provides links beyond SureStart to other employment services and programming in the community.
At each stage in the continuum, Fusion’s programs address four key development streams: health and well-being, community development, personal development, and skill development. Ultimately, by involving young people in recreational activities that they enjoy, and then bridging these activities to income generating and skill building activities, Fusion’s youth are engaged and trained in areas that match their interests, and have possible livelihood outcomes.
Fusion is supported by municipal funding, grants, donations of materials and services, and earned revenue. Since opening in 2006, Fusion’s annual budget has grown to $1.1 million. In 2012, Fusion received $472,103 from The Town of Ingersoll. In addition, Fusion receives funds from granting organizations. At present, Fusion’s largest external donor is the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF). Smaller-scale grants fund day-to-day operations, while large grants, such as that received from OTF, support program delivery and development. The OTF directly supports the SureStart program, and some OTF funds will be used to renovate Fusion’s kitchen facilities and reincorporate food service into programming. However, OTF funding concludes in September of 2015.
Annually, the SEs generate $60-80,000 annually. A percentage of this revenue goes to a reserve fund for Fusion’s future capital needs. The reserve fund will reach $20,000 by 2015. Revenue from SE work also pays youth who work in the businesses and staff for extra hours put into SE development and management, with any extra revenues being re-invested into the organization. The administrative requirements of the SEs are financed through the recreational budget.
Fusion partners with local organizations like the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) to house adult day programs and the Oxford-Elgin Child and Youth Centre (OCYC), who runs mental health programs and alternative education programs from Fusion’s facility. These community partners are tenants in the Fusion building and pay rent. In addition, Fusion accepts donations, and collaborates with other local organizations to fundraise collectively.
Impacts & Outcomes Objectives
Fusion’s work has contributed to a dramatic change in youth behaviour. By forming anchor relationships with staff and peers at Fusion, youth are supported in finding employment pathways for themselves. The SEs in particular provide opportunities for youth to experience working in a number of industries, preparing them for employment and training decisions. Thanks to these opportunities, youth report feeling more confident, respected, valued, and inclined to stay and work in the community.
Fusion also provides a “second home” for many youth – a safe, accessible, and welcoming space, where they can explore a variety of activities, form healthy relationships with other youth and adult staff, and be supported and listened to throughout the challenges of adolescence. In turn, this helps youth to develop a sense of place, ownership, and pride, contributing to positive self-esteem and identity development.
Fusion keeps youth involved in creative and productive activities, rather than in unhealthy and potentially harmful ones.
As an organization, Fusion’s top priorities include:
- Bracing for funding fluctuations, which put existing programs and staff positions at risk, and create uncertainty
- Striking a balance between pursuing sustainable business practices and keeping the SEs manageable within the existing structure of the organization.
- Ensuring that youth continue to be engaged, as interests and technologies rapidly evolve
- Confronting stigma around Fusion as a youth centre
- Defining and streamlining Fusion’s role in the community
The SEs within Fusion have their own challenges. They are often on the backburner, as the recreational programs are the main focus; the SEs have not yet become a mainstay of Fusion. Most importantly, since the SEs need ongoing financial support, they can be vulnerable if stakeholders (such as municipal councilors) do not understand them as part of the organization, and expect the businesses to stand on their own. As a result, Fusion must find strategies for communicating effectively about what the SEs add to the recreational program, and why long-term support is necessary to produce the best positive outcomes for the youth who are involved. The significant investment that is required to keep the SEs operational must be clearly understood as an investment in youth.
Support from the municipality and community partners, youth involvement, and strong leadership have been key to Fusion’s success. Some lessons learned include:
- Plan and learn from other organizations to better focus resources
- Involve key stakeholders (i.e. youth) in the planning process to ensure that resources are well-spent, and that the programs and services offered align with stakeholder needs and wants
- Be flexible and adaptable as an organization
- Build a committed team of staff; collaborate, communicate, and ensure that staff are “on the same page” about the organization’s identity, goals, and mission
Fusion’s SEs are successful as part of an integrated model – from youth engagement to livelihood development. The revenue generated is positive, but the greatest value of these SEs is in giving youth opportunities and experiences in employment and business that can guide them through developing their own livelihood strategies.
The role of Town Council in supporting SE innovation has made a critical difference in effectively developing SEs that train and support and engage youth to transition into the economy. The key challenge now is to communicate about Fusion’s successes with SEs, and to position them as necessary components to the overall program. The SEs themselves, in Fusion’s case, can be seen as programs that have the added benefit of partially covering their own costs.