We’ve got a lot!

By Kingsley Hurlington
Special to the Echo
Published Oct. 16 2018

There is never a headline that reads: “Seatbelt saves driver in car crash.” It’s not that car crashes aren’t common or that seatbelts save lives. It would make an insignificant headline because it reports that a seatbelt did exactly what it was designed to do – It’s simply not news.

As humans we are hardwired to pay attention to events that are both unusual and negative. There are those who argue that there is an evolutionary impetus for this. Events that are unusual or negative should imbue us with fear and that fear should motivate us to protect ourselves. This attention to bad events is called the negativity bias. Everyone suffers from it – we are far better at remembering the negative events in our lives than the positive ones.

Over the first half of 2018 I have been honoured to be a researcher in your community conducting a study at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School. As an educator with over 20 years of experience it was a delight to visit the school talk to school administrators teachers administrative assistants and teens. My area of research is resilience which is defined as the psychosocial capacity for individuals to thrive when they are under duress. In the context of exposure to significant adversity resilience is the ability to manage that adversity and leverage it into a good result.

When resilience research began it was all about measuring and explaining the internal characteristics that individuals had. It was thought that some people were just naturally better at dealing with personal difficulties than others. Very quickly though researchers realized that people who had good support networks were able to better manage the difficulties in their lives. It turned out – unsurprisingly – that external factors (support from outside of a person) could be extremely important to their overall success. Fascinatingly most of the resilience research that has been done to date has focused on youth in urban areas (which is fair since about 70 per cent of all Canadians live in major urban communities) and very little of it has focused on rural communities. My research project focused on exploring the resilience characteristics of rural youth within Haliburton County.

When people who have never lived in Rural or Small Town (RST) Canada think about what life is like there they typically think of it in one of two stereotypical ways. First they may think of it as a back-to-basics natural farming community. In their minds they see the small town with the corner store where everyone meets to gossip every day. Everyone is pure and wholesome and honest. It’s a place where everyone helps each other and nothing goes wrong. On the other hand they may envision rural and small towns as traditional backward unchanging communities full of rednecks who have a fear of strangers. That place where everyone is spying on everyone else and outsiders are gently encouraged to “just move along… we don’t need your type here.”

I have always been fascinated by this dichotomy. It seems that a rural community would need to be either one or the other: either accepting or traditional. Yet as someone who spent his formative years in rural living I know – as you do – that rural and small town Canada is not one or the other – it’s neither. Rural communities are beautiful and complex which is why I love studying them.

As someone who has an appreciation for rural life it has never been lost on me that rural communities are – at the same time – places of deficit and vibrancy. There is no question that there are fewer resources for youth in Haliburton County than there are in Toronto but at the same time RST Canada has produced some of the greatest Canadians of all. Successful athletes artists scientists entrepreneurs politicians and lawyers have all come from RST Canada. With an ongoing crisis in adolescent mental health affecting countries around the world it is essential to recognize that this trend is affecting all of Canada including rural and small town communities. Indeed recent research from a team in British Columbia (see Creighton Oliffe Ogrodniczuk and Frank 2017) indicates that levels of depression and death by suicide are highest amongst rural young men.

As a researcher I was curious about what kinds of characteristics rural communities have going for them that assist youth to develop healthy identities and well-being. My study invited youth from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School to complete a resilience survey (called the Child and Youth Resilience Measure or CYRM) that asked teens to answer questions about their individual characteristics their caregivers and their community. The CYRM was created at Dalhousie University in Halifax and has been used to assess resilience qualities of youth around the world. After completing the CYRM youth with unusually high resilience scores were invited to participate in focus group conversations to share their insights about what was going right in their lives.

The study while small yielded some interesting results. Across Canada the average CYRM resilience score is 111.0. In Haliburton County it was 104.65. Initially this might sound really low but it lines up with the national scores for youth with complex needs. Youth from rural communities are youth with complex needs. The participants identified that they had strong resilience supports in their lives in three key areas: physical caregiving (e.g. there is enough food at home and a place to sleep) personal skills (e.g. cooperation awareness of personal strengths) and educational context (e.g. sense of belonging at school and the importance of education). Participants also indicated that they had very high community support that they knew lots of people in the community and that they loved spending time outdoors.

Notably the participants from the focus groups had a score of 120.64 which was much higher than the national average. In other words the participants who displayed the highest resilience characteristics had scores that were considerably higher than the Canadian average. The focus group discussions revealed five key areas that these youth with high resilience characteristics expressed. They told me that they felt a strong sense of community they recognized the power of community volunteers they appreciated the quality time that they had with their parents and other adult supporters they respected the educational intimacy that their school offered and acknowledged the importance of time outdoors in nature while appreciating the sense of freedom that their community provided them.

In regards to their sense of community participants revealed how much they were aware of all the comfort that knowing people within the community brought them. Recognizing people on the street and in stores meant that they never felt completely isolated. They also appreciated that they knew who to talk to within the community to make change possible. The study participants described how it was possible to meet people as people before they met them in their professions. For example they described how they recognized teachers at their school as people who live and contribute in their community before they take on the role of teacher. People who know your name and who your family is make the community feel safer.

In addition participants clearly expressed the importance of a community of volunteers going so far as to admit that “everything in the community runs on the effort of volunteers.” Ice rinks are flooded sports teams are coached and transported school trips are supervised arts programs are operated all because volunteers have agreed to support these initiatives. Equally important is that youth within the community recognize that they have a critical role to play as volunteers themselves working with younger children the elderly or other groups in need. Everyone wants the best for the community which makes them willing to give their time and energy to making it reality. This may be a more radical concept than some non-urban Canadians think because in large urban centres there are more people and more resources which can lead to a type of privileged expectation: “I live here and pay my taxes and we deserve more…”

While most study participants would likely never want to admit it publicly they value the quality time they get with their parents guardians and other adult supporters. This is especially true of time spent together in the car. Participants expressed the importance of this time for getting into deeper and more private conversations with their parents. They expressed their gratitude for parents and guardians who provided them transportation to the many places they needed to get to but were even more gracious for the time to talk while on those long drives. Again this is different from urban living in that large urban centres offer many public transit options so there is less need for parents/guardians to provide transportation.

Participants were not naive in their awareness of the limits that the community provided. Many were concerned about whether their education was competitive in comparison with their urban counterparts. However they were eager to share how they benefited from being in a school where they were so well known and supported by teachers and school administrators. This kind of educational intimacy meant that they were often individually encouraged by teachers to participate in programs beyond the school and community. Because teachers knew their strengths and abilities so well it wasn’t uncommon to be spurred by teachers to attend conferences apply for scholarships or engage in other forms of enrichment.

The power of nature was discussed by every focus group participant. They recognized the role that nature and the outdoors played in enriching their lives. They talked about an appreciation of the beauty of nature and its ability to offer a place of true quietude and escape from the bustle of daily life. They expounded upon their connection with the restorative power of natural spaces and outdoor activities. They accepted with awe the curiosity and creativity that is learned from being out in nature.

Furthermore they were aware and respectful of the freedom and flexibility that outdoor activities provided them. They could walk/play for hours outside unfettered by traditional rules and eschewing traditional standards of safety. With the “found” materials of nature they could build the proverbial fort which protected their sense of freedom. The research around the value of outdoor education has been well documented and is the reason why many urban school boards have dedicated facilities for such programs.

Ultimately the research indicated that many youth from Haliburton County were able to benefit immensely from growing up in the community. While not true for every young man or woman for many being exposed to the limits and challenges of the rural and small town communities that make up Haliburton County provided them with just the right level of adversity to spur them into higher levels of resilience characteristics. Without question things do go wrong in rural and small towns and sometimes this is a result of those limited resources. Yet the greater story that is so often untold is of the success that the community inspires amongst the youth who develop within them. In parallel with educational intimacy is a form of service intimacy that afford youth access to personalized assistance through quality organizations like Point In Time.

Meaningful change comes from not only acknowledging what is wrong but from recognizing what is right and leveraging strategies that are working against what isn’t. Without knowing what’s right how can there truly be improvement? Hopefully this message is a reminder to all stakeholders in Haliburton County to continue to honour what is working with your youth as the key strategy for addressing the challenges that exist today and that will be coming in the future. As great as the challenges are there are youth who are rising above them. Perhaps the success of youth is underreported and under discussed in communities because like the seatbelt that saves lives that’s exactly what rural and small towns do. This sentiment is profoundly captured by a Grade 10 male who mature beyond his years uttered this phrase during a focus group likely without appreciating its perfunctory nature: “We’ve got so much nothing in a small community we have a lot.”

Kingsley Hurlington is an educator and researcher at Trent University. During the last school year he spent time studying the resilience of youth in Haliburton County. He can be reached at khurlington@trentu.ca.