‘A new-found sense of independence’

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At first glance, Sonali Sivakumar looks like any other volunteer at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.

Sonali Sivakumar, right, and a fellow volunteer stop for a quick photo while working at the volleyball venue at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg on Wednesday. Sivakumar is in Winnipeg as part of the NWT Youth Ambassadors Program, which routinely travels to events such as the Canada Games. photo courtesy of Dawn Moses

Clad in her orange shirt, replete with identification lanyard, she’s either directing people where to go, taking their tickets or doing some cleaning.

But what people wouldn’t know is that the 16-year-old Sir John Franklin student is one of more than two dozen youth from the NWT who are at the Games as part of the NWT Youth Ambassadors Program.

The Canada Games, winter and summer versions, are regular stops for the program and one that Sivakumar has relished since she arrived in Winnipeg last weekend.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “The weather has been great and there are so many amazing people I’ve met. It’s been more than I expected.”

The program, which is operated by the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, is open to anyone between the ages of 16 to 24 and the idea behind it is to give youth the chance to build leadership skills through volunteering. Other events the program has travelled to are the Arctic Winter Games and North American Indigenous Games.

A total of 28 youth made up this year’s contingent: 23 working as volunteers split up over the two weeks of the Games – 11 in week one and 12 in week two – and a further five as traditional games demonstrators.

Dawn Moses, the program’s manager, said figuring out who makes the trip begins with the application process, followed by a committee which pores through the applications.

“Every question on the application is rated by the committee,” she said. “For example, we ask the applicants what sort of volunteering they do in their home community, do they volunteer at school, what the program means to them and describe their home community in their words,” she said.

Sivakumar didn’t even know about the program until the deadline to apply loomed and that’s when a teacher at Sir John Franklin suggested she would be a good fit.

“It looked like a really cool program after I did some research about it,” she said. “It was a chance for me to go to a place I have never been to before and I had no idea how great the Canada Games experience is.”

Sivakumar is part of the week-two crew, preparing the athletes village for the arrival of the week-two teams and athletes before she hit the ground as a venue volunteer.

“I helped set up the beds and prepared the dorms for the athletes and coaches,” she said. “I’ve also worked on the (Team NWT) parents breakfast that was held earlier this week and helped out with security at the Forks (music and cultural area).”

Sivakumar is hoping to go to medical school – her choices have been narrowed down to McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia – after graduation and while the experience of the Games has been beneficial from a volunteer standpoint, it’s also given her a chance to see what it’s like venturing out on her own.

“I have a new-found sense of independence being here,” she said. “You have to navigate the city on your own by taking buses and it shows you how the system works and it’s very similar to a university community. You realize you have to get to different places, like a university campus, and this has helped me get used to that. You learn how to spend money and you learn how to live on your own. It’s so much different than Yellowknife and I’m so glad I got to experience this.”

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After being a nomad around North America following my semi-debauched post-secondary days, I put down my roots in Yellowknife in 2006. I’ve been keeping this sports seat warm with NNSL for the better part of the last 10 years over two stints. I’m living the dream of everyone who said they would never get married and never have kids with the best wife you could ask for putting up with my crap for the past 11 years along with two daughters who are more beautiful than yours. Forever outnumbered when it comes to house choices, at least the dog has my back ... whenever I feed him. When you see sports happening, call the hotline at 867 766 8257.