The Life Cycle of Youth Projects

The Otesha Project Offers Direction and Sustainability

  • The Otesha Project bikes from city to city promoting sustainable mobile communities. Photo Adis Dumas

When the federal youth volunteer program Katimavik had its funding cut last year, Canada lost its go-to for directionless high school grads.

However, there’s a lesser-known not-for-profit trying to fill the void, celebrating its 10th year of cross-country volunteering.

While travel costs were one of Katimavik’s biggest expenses, The Otesha Project takes a different approach as to how to cover that cost—one that is at the heart of their mission.

The Otesha Project moves on two wheels as a troupe of over-18-year-olds trekking around provinces in the warm months of the year. Participants use their own bikes, travelling at a pace dependent on the skill level of the cyclists.

Each tour member raises their own contribution to cover the costs of insurance and supplies, raising awareness about the project along the way.

To keep costs down, Otesha trades work for food and lodging, and sometimes relies on the generosity of strangers.

“We were supposed to be a rest stop, but they ended up performing a play at a local high school,” said Frances Darwin, who hosted an Otesha tour in her Newmarket, ON home last year after receiving a request from Otesha through the popular floor-crashing website couchsurfing.org.

The group staying with Darwin was the 2012 Phenomenal Food Tour, focused on the path the food you eat travels from the farm to your plate. Otesha has increasingly applied themes to their growing number of bike tours, a trait they share with Katimavik. All of Otesha’s bike tours focus on an element of sustainable living on a local level.

The Katimavik Connection

Otesha regularly holds presentations and workshops in schools and community centres along the route, and is far more education-based than Katimavik, which provides volunteer work to not-for-profits—but their working philosophy for community engagement and respect for the environment is shared.

Upon hearing that the Conservative government was axing 100 per cent of Katimavik’s funding, Otesha Director of Operations Elly Adeland knew she had to do anything she could to keep Katimavik “on the radar for groups and individuals.”

Along with various other Ottawa-based groups, Adeland is working to keep some small form of Katimavik alive for volunteers this summer.

“All of us came together when we found out about the Katimavik cuts and worked with Katimavik’s national headquarters in Montreal to make sure that Katimavik could still thrive and prosper in our community in Ottawa,” said Adeland.

“We’ve been searching for different ways to help support Katimavik in Ottawa, hopefully to have a program in 2013.”

This effort has so far included funding requests to the City of Ottawa and working to get the participation of private sponsors.

The Water Cycle

Recent Concordia grad Mériza Martel-Bryden was part of the Waterworks tour last summer, looping around southern Ontario from Kitchener to Ottawa. The Waterworks tour was all about education, both for those on the tour and the people they visited.

A memorable stop for her was Sarnia, ON, the city with the highest air pollution levels in Canada and famous for its Chemical Valley, which Martel-Bryden, who graduated last spring with a major in Design for Theatre, says is “a huge landscape of industrial plants. Really beautiful at night, but kind of a scar that Sarnia is known for.”

While visiting, her tour heard several opinions about the city’s attempts to clean up their reputation, including a city official at a water treatment plant and those at a local fishery.

“There was a spokesperson for the city of Sarnia who was saying the water was crystal clear now, and that they had reversed all the damage,” said Martel-Bryden.

“But then we speak to the people at the fishery and they have a different story, how upstream the water isn’t so great, and that it’s affecting the fish life. They were doing a lot of work to restore the fish in the water near Sarnia.”

Educating Well

Every Otesha volunteer learns the prop-free play Cycling Through Change, which they perform on the many stops of their tour. In exchange for the service provided to the community or school, they ask for a donation to help cover costs.

At some of the schools on the Waterworks Tour’s route, they held workshops about water; afterward, the group would hold discussions and brainstorms. The aim was to think about water conservation and pollution from the personal level to the municipal, agricultural and industrial levels.

The knowledge levels of the students varied, but they often shared the revelation of how much water was used in factories to make the products they use everyday, that conservation meant more than turning the tap off.

“A lot of them had no idea that you need hundreds or thousands of litres of water for coolants, or mixing chemicals. A lot of them needed us to nudge them to get their mind there,” said Martel-Bryden.

Travelling from urban to rural areas was a lesson in what concerns different populations have over their watersheds, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to conservation. Sustainable use of water has different implications on a well system than in cities, as Martel-Bryden learned during her tour.

“When we were talking about using as little water as you can, they’re saying, ‘We have to use our wells because if we don’t, it dries up.’ Running into that was a realization that you can’t just apply one rule to everyone,” she said.

Growing Knowledge

Depending on where they’re biking, the tours often stay at farms. Martel-Bryden and her group planted, weeded and pruned to earn their room and board at farms during their trip.

For La Ferme Girouette, a little farm in Vars, ON that has twice hosted Otesha tours, the impact was greater than they ever expected.

“Otesha showed up in July, during the dry spell, when weeds were a sight to be seen,” said the farm’s co-owner Josée Boulanger, who last year expanded her farm to work with families with mentally disabled children.

“They showed up just in time to save the corn, the peas, a bunch of little areas that we might have had to just hope for the best,” she said.

Boulanger first agreed to host the tour to make contacts with fellow environmentalists, but when she saw the amount of work they could provide to the little farm, which mostly consists of vegetable gardening, she knew she would have them any time.

The Otesha tour helped support the initiative at La Ferme Girouette—which Katimavik was instrumental in helping to start by constructing 12 large boxes that allowed for indoor farming. This year, tours will reach British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“The highlight of my time is when we were standing around the kitchen and all of a sudden all the members started singing this beautiful song that they use in high schools to teach students about food, but then they started improvising and made up this crazy awesome song about staying with us and my family,” said Darwin.

“I ended up drumming on the compost bin while they sang in beautiful harmony,” she recalled. “That moment was compassion right there.”

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