Elizabeth Boittiaux’s path to her current role as a program coordinator with LOVE Nova Scotia — a youth support organization now approaching its 21st year in operation — started early, when she was drawn the program as a girl.
“First and foremost, I am a LOVE Kid,” she says now. “I joined LOVE when I was 12 years old in 2003 — and officially they weren’t supposed to let me in until I was 13, but I was a good squeaky wheel.”
When Boittiaux first became involved, the impetus was on creative expression, giving kids a voice. Then called the Photojournalism Program, kids were able to have their photography and writing published and shared with others.
“It was a really safe space for me to learn how to express myself in writing,” Boittiaux remembers. “It was a way to get our work published and out there, our photography and our writing.”
Since then, 16 years since Boittiaux got involved, LOVE has grown and evolved as a youth organization.
These days, LOVE Nova Scotia — now one chapter in a global network of sister programs around the world — looks and functions in a lot of different ways: a twice-a-week youth group; a safe space for expression; a place to go for a guaranteed healthy meal.
Many of the leaders of the program are former LOVE kids themselves — people who came up through the program and who wanted to be a part of leading it for others.
Connecting it all is the idea that LOVE can provide for kids a place to “investigate what’s inside of you,” says senior program coordinator Finley Tolliver.
It’s about momentum, says Tolliver — building it, maintaining it, and directing it toward positive ends. It can mean helping people with small goals — “I’ve never taken the bus before, and I need to take the bus from point A to point B,” — or big ones, like “I’d like to graduate and then go to university,” Tolliver says.
“Totally different viewpoints, but same momentum,” Tolliver says. “It’s really about putting them first, and getting them to put their best foot forward.” What that means is up to them.
In recent years and as COVID winds down, LOVE runs as a twice-a-week meeting at King’s University — a place for kids to go to eat, for one thing, and to have a space where they can be themselves. They are intentionally broad, Boittiaux says, in terms of who can join.
“A LOVE kid is a kid that doesn’t feel like they are really a part of anything,” she says. “A LOVE kid is the wandering soul, the people out there that are dealing with anything where you might say, ‘that’s shitty to deal with.’ That’s a LOVE kid.”
“There’s not a kid on this earth that hasn’t doubted themselves, that has all the answers,” Tolliver says. “Whether they are coming from a wealthy background to an impoverished one, everyone’s trying to question who they are, what they can do in this world, and how they can be better.”
Food, Tolliver says, has always been a part of it. During COVID, when providing a hot meal in one location wasn’t possible, he would drive around with Sobeys gift cards to make sure people had the means to get themselves something to eat.
When everyone else was trying to move to Zoom, the kids with LOVE Nova Scotia put together a group on Snapchat to keep in touch with phone calls and vide chats, to have a low-pressure place to talk. The sum of all of it, Boittiaux says, is that it provides a support structure.
“When I was in LOVE, I would call [executive director Dennis Adams] for things ranging from, ‘I want to jump off the bridge’ to, ‘I’m at school and I haven’t had lunch all week,’” Boittiaux says. “The reason I talk to my kids two times a week on the phone is, if they ever have that going on, I’m the person to call. I want them to know, ‘OK, Liz is going to answer the phone.'”
But that could only go so far. Tolliver says the reality for many kids is being stuck at home simply made things harder and more dangerous, both because the isolation could wear on people, and because home life is often the source of fear in the first place. For all their success in staying connected through the pandemic, it was still a deeply traumatic and isolating experience for many kids.
“It became really, really tough to run the program, and to have youth talk so openly about who they were,” Tolliver says. “I had a youth whisper they were checking the door as they were talking to me, because they were afraid of the threat that it would impose. So we quickly realized, you can’t share this here. … That was tough.”
But as the province enters Phase 5, it’s allowing LOVE to resume its usual programming and shift out of pandemic mode.
The light at the end of the tunnel has been getting brighter as the group looks forward to being together in the same room again — to recreate a safe space in the flesh as opposed to virtually. And now with vaccination rates up, it is getting back to doing what it's waited so long to do.
“We are waiting to hear that the doors are opening, and once that happens, we can hit the ground running, Tuesday and Thursday, all the way up to Christmas,” Boittiaux says.
“All our kids are waiting. We have our Halloween party planned; we have our Christmas party planned. We’ve got everything ready to go, we’re just waiting for doors to open.”