When a counsellor at Winston Churchill High School asked Colton Ensign if he’d be interested in spending a few hours away from the classroom to learn how to weld, he thought “Sure, how bad could it be?” Now, Ensign is in his second year of the Welding Apprenticeship program at Lethbridge College, and he credits his newfound passion and career to the skills development program that started it all.
Facilitated by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), the Community Approach to Skills Development Training program (also known as the Stepping Away program) provides youth who have been affected by mental health the opportunity to explore skills training in the trades. Students must demonstrate a willingness to commit to learning and can earn up to 15 high school credits for completing the 14-week program.
“This program changes kids’ lives,” says Deb Forsyth, CMHA program coordinator. “The students are hands-on learners who often aren’t afforded the opportunity to become involved in skills-based training, so Stepping Away becomes a catalyst for them. They are fundamentally different when they finish the program because they begin to recognize the possibilities for their futures.”
Twelve students per semester spend 12 hours a week at Lethbridge College working in their own welding booths, building carpentry projects, taking apart and repairing small engines or learning about workplace safety. They also spend one morning a week at the Interfaith Food Bank Community Kitchen learning food handling and preparation skills.
“To me, it’s like stepping away from their burdens and negativity,” says Marina Grant, project coordinator, Youth Initiatives, Lethbridge College. “They have a few hours to try something new and be immersed in something good. They learn they have value and that they have skills they never knew about.”
For Ensign, discovering his talent for welding happened by chance. “When I was approached about the program, there was only one spot open and it was in welding,” he says. “I had never welded before, but I ended up loving it.”
After completing the 14-week course, Ensign says he transitioned into Winston Churchill’s Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) and earned additional high school credits while further honing his welding skills.
Ensign graduated from high school in 2022. He’s now employed at Southland Trailer Corp. in Lethbridge and continues to work toward his welding ticket through the college’s apprenticeship programming.
“That’s really where the Stepping Away program saved me,” he says. “Without it, I would probably still be trying to figure out what I wanted to do instead of being nearly halfway through my apprenticeship.”
It’s a sentiment heard often by Rod Dueck, program liaison for the Lethbridge School Division, who says a number of graduates are now working in the trades because of the direction and encouragement they received.
“The program gives students who may be struggling with traditional classroom settings the opportunity to look at school in a different way,” says Dueck. “It’s an eye-opener for the real world – they see it’s not all bookwork and it gives them a drive to finish high school and move into a career in trades.”
For more information youth programming at Lethbridge College, including the CMHA’s Community Approach to Skills Development Training program, visit lethbridgecollege.ca/youth-programs. Further information on Lethbridge College’s apprenticeship training opportunities can be found at lethbridgecollege.ca/trades.