Peterborough, Ontario’s, Youth Emergency Shelter (YES) for homeless youth is “near and dear” to Crystal Hebert — it saved her life.
Now 26 years old with her own professional photography business, Hebert considered YES “home” off and on from the time she was 15 to 21.
“I kind of owe it my whole life,” said Hebert, in a recent interview.
That’s why she takes every opportunity she can to repay that favour. She volunteers as much as she can to create awareness of the struggles of homeless youth and what YES can do for them.
The Youth Photo Voice Project is her latest involvement. She’s been working with YES since January to engage homeless youth in a photography project — sharing her technical knowledge and encouraging them to experiment with cameras and take photos of familiar places and spaces around town to show what homelessness means to them.
“With all the struggles that those kids have, it’s hard to get them to participate in projects like this because they don’t think they are worthy,” Hebert said. “They don’t know how to do this. They need a lot more encouragement because, obviously, their priorities are different from typical teenagers.”
A jury selected 20-or-so photos for a month-long community exhibit titled “Shot: Youth lens on homelessness“, which, as part of Peterborough’s annual Spark Photo Festival, show-cased the youth’s talents at Pappas Billiards in downtown Peterborough during April. Cameras were loaned to participants from the Spark Festival.
The exhibit will be on display May 24 at Market Hall, Peterborough, 7 to 9 p.m., when A Way Home Peterborough — a collaboration of community agencies aimed at reducing youth homelessness — launches its new program.
Related: ‘A Way Home Peterborough’ Aims to Reduce Youth Homelessness
“One of the youth was ecstatic that we had chosen her photos for the exhibit. It was a really good feeling. It’s pretty well what made this project worth it,” said Hebert.
One of the other youths had been recently kicked out of her home and disowned by her family after coming out as gay, she said, and the photography sessions helped her express her emotions and thoughts.
Another participant, Catharine Venator, 20, has been homeless in Peterborough for two months, but was first homeless at age 17. She had no experience with photography before this.
“I was offered to be a part of it, so I thought it would be a neat thing to enter and to give me something to do while I am homeless. It kind of kept me going,” said Venator, who is originally from New York, but moved to the area when she was 14. She will soon obtain her high school diploma and plans to become a nurse, working in the mental health field.
“My images mean a sense of freedom, a sense of creativity and just basically represent what’s good for the community,” she said.
Some of Hebert’s photos and photos by YES outreach worker Peter Newnham are also part of the exhibit.
“I walked around town with my (foster) brother who I met at YES and we went to all the places where we went when we were kids and hung out when we didn’t have any place to go, and took photos,” said Hebert.
Hebert, who identifies as Indigenous and grew up off-reserve, left home at 15 due to a family situation that involved parental substance abuse and mental illness.
“It was a struggle every day. I decided I was probably better off elsewhere.”
Children’s Aid Society brought her to YES.
“I will never forget my first night. I was scared and nervous, but there were kids there who had it a lot worse than me.”
She is now married with two children and owns a home in Westwood, near Peterborough.
“I really believe YES saved my life, a couple of times. Any project I can get involved with here, I do. I love it.”
Crystal Hebert’s professional photographic images can be viewed at her business page: Facebook.com/Freezingwarmmoments
By Melodie McCullough