Future of Project Sunset remains uncertain

Sam Odrowski
Special to the Times

A unique OPP led pilot project in Devlin aimed at building resilience in youth grades 5-8 and making them less likely to engage in risky behaviours recently stopped receiving government funding.
The experiential strength based learning model, with both in-school and after-school programming, Project Sunset, was funded in Devlin from January 2016 to March 2020 and also offered in Dryden, Kenora, and Sioux Lookout.
During that time Crossroads School students developed outdoor survival skills and learned how to camp, canoe, hike, garden, ice skate, and most importantly, work as a team.
“This gives the kids a chance to have something that they can look forward to where they can spend time with their friends but also learn a lot of valuable life skills and just hopefully build positive relationships throughout the program,” noted Bryce Gilbert, Project Sunset youth engagement coordinator.
“I think there’s not really anything else like it in our community, which is awesome.”
Fortunately, the Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) carried funding for Project Sunset from March until June of this year to provide continuity for the program while they explore grant funding opportunities with Naicatchewenin First Nation going forward.
“Project Sunset has been a valuable partnership with the school,” said Crossroads principal, Sharla MacKinnon.
“They have been able to enhance and support the current programming within the school day as well as provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful activities after school and on PD days.”
James Woods of the Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre, who’s helped to facilitate Project Sunset since 2017 stressed the importance of keeping the program alive for local youth.
“In mental health counselling where I spend a lot of time working with kids and parents – every parent I talk to says they wish Project Sunset was at their school….because of the benefits that they have seen,” he noted.
“It should be part of the provincial curriculum at some point in my opinion.”
Naicatchewenin First Nation and RRDSB both want to see the program run in September and are applying for grants to make it possible.
There aren’t any extracurricular activities for elementary students living on reserve or in Devlin except for summer camps and minor league hockey, so without Project Sunset, they don’t really have any positive outlets to access, Gilbert told the Times.
The program also connects Crossroads students with the adults facilitating the program, who ensure the youth feel comfortable communicating any of their problems openly.
“We operate from the framework that in order to provide support for youth they only need one trusting adult, one reliable adult that they can go to in a time of need,” said Wood.
He noted that interestingly, because the project was an OPP initiative, part of its goals were to get kids to abstain from substances and make good choices, although these topics were never directly discussed.
“We just put ourselves in a position as adults, as helpers and as facilitators to be there for the kids in their time of need and they would come to us as they experienced challenges – we’d talk about things but we never singled anybody out,” Wood noted.
Project Sunset has guided hundreds of students through their informative years, providing them with positive role models who care about their well being.
“There’s a lot of kids out there that are raising themselves in some capacity and some of the tools that we’ve worked on kind of assist with how to manage on your own,” Wood explained.
A Third Party Audit of Project Sunset was recently conducted and it drew many conclusions around the program’s goals and outcomes.
The goals were to create resilience in youth, establish positive connections for them in the community and build life skills.
All of these were achieved during Project Sunset’s tenure for many students, which sets them up for success, according to its executive lead Chuck Wesley, who overseas the program in Dryden, Kenora, Devlin, and Sioux Lookout.
“The success I think we saw was more in the youth themselves progressing, seeing them become more independent, developing resiliency, and the ability to deal with certain issues in their lives,” he noted.
While there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how Project Sunset will operate this fall amidst COVID-19 control measures, Wesley said he’s hopeful the community partners can keep the program alive.