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St. John's-based Choices for Youth helps young woman turn life around

Sylvia Newhook (right) says she would never have turned her life around without help from the staff at the Choices for Youth’s outreach centre, such as Katie Hopkins (left).
Sylvia Newhook (right) says she would never have turned her life around without help from the staff at the Choices for Youth’s outreach centre, such as Katie Hopkins (left). - Rosie Mullaley

At 16, Sylvia Newhook hated herself.

She was bullied so much at school, she had to drop out. She was arguing with her family so much, she left home. And she was so miserable, she became addicted to drugs and struggled with self harm.

“I was so lost,” she says with a quiver in her voice. “I just wanted to numb the pain.”

Now 26, Newhook has turned her life around with the help of doctors and staff at the community organization Choices for Youth.

But it was a rough road — one she says is being travelled by many young people in this province.

She hopes that by sharing her story, she’ll inspire others and help them realize they don’t have to go it alone.

“It can be a lonely life when you’re going through all this,” she said. “I know that more than anybody.”

Growing up in a loving family in Mount Pearl, Newhook had been a happy, straight-A student. But all that began to change when kids in her school found out she was gay.

“I was getting beat up against lockers and pushed around,” she said. “I had to take a person to court (for harassment and assault), all because I was gay.

“That was the start of my downward spiral.”

Newhook became an angry young woman. She became addicted to opiates and lost control.

Unable to understand the change in their daughter or how to handle it, Newhook’s parents often took her to the hospital in an effort to get her help, but it always ended up in more frustration and arguments back home.

Home became a place of turmoil and she had to get out.

“It was just a bad situation. They didn’t know what to do with me,” she said.

Newhook became homeless, bouncing from couch to couch — staying with family, friends and anyone else who would take her in and feed her.

“It was a vicious cycle,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed of what I had become.”

By the time she was 18, Newhook was in and out of the Waterford Hospital.

“I would have (brief) periods where I would be so good and be so successful,” she said. “Then things would just crash and I would self destruct.”

But at around that time, one of her friends suggested visiting the outreach centre run by Choices for Youth, an organization that provides support for at-risk young people.

It turned out to be the best decision she’s ever made.

“I walked in the door and they were so welcoming,” Newhook said during an interview at the Outreach Centre on Carter’s Hill Place in downtown St. John’s. “I was so upset, but they listened to me and actually wanted to hear my story. I felt so comfortable and safe. They were like family.”

Through counselling and various programs at Choices for Youth, Newhook was able to focus and advance her education. The staff also helped her reconnect with her family.

“The staff here is just phenomenal. They were able to bring me back because I was really dissociated for so long,” she said. “I learned coping mechanisms. And even during those times when I slipped (over the next several years), they never gave up on me.”

Two years ago, Choices for Youth also helped Newhook find affordable housing, which she said is a huge step in getting her life back on track.

“Having a place to call my own and a place where I could go to feel safe and work through things is crucial,” she said. “Safety is a big thing for young people out there who are couch surfing.”

In the last few years, Newhook was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and was prescribed medication that helps her concentrate, she said. She’s on the methadone maintenance program and has been sober since April.

“I feel like a new person,” she said.

Newhook said Choices for Youth also helped her get in touch with her creative side. As part of her rehabilitation, she began creating art — painting and drawing as a way to express herself and release her emotions.

“Art has actually saved my life a million times over,” she said.

“Because of my addiction and ADHD, I couldn’t sit down and focus at all. It was so frustrating because I went to so many different doctors, and so many people for help and nobody would give me an answer.

“Art is a huge release. It’s so important to have a release, an outlet, a positive way of expressing yourself when you’re going through something. When I’m having a bad day, I just let it out through my art.”

Staff members at Choices for Youth were so impressed with her talent, they asked her to become the youth mentor for the Artful program, an empowering art group for female-identifying youth.

“It was at that moment that I realized how far I’d come,” she said. “Knowing I can actually help some of these people who were like me meant so much.”

Sitting nearby listening to the interview, outreach worker Katie Hopkins was getting teary-eyed.

“You did all the work. We just supported you,” Hopkins said, smiling at Newhook.

Hopkins said Newhook has made tremendous strides and has blown everyone away with her creative gifts.

“The change in Sylvia has just been amazing,” Hopkins said. “I’ve seen Sylvia in lots of different states, but she has done so much self-work. She’s become a real role model.

“People don’t realize working on yourself is a full-time job.”

Newhook is one of more than 1,000 young people, ages 16 to 29, who look to Choices for Youth for help every year.

Angela Picco, fund development and communications co-ordinator for Choices for Youth, said young people come to the Outreach Centre to get anything from a hot meal, shower or a toothbrush to support from traumatic experiences and getting access to housing and education.

Opened in 1990, Choices for Youth helped more than 1,200 at-risk young people in 2016-17 — up from 1,000 the previous year. Picco said the final numbers will be higher for 2017-18.

“Young people who come to us face a multitude of problems — mental health, addictions, issues accessing affordable housing, family breakdown, personal crisis, abuse and trauma,” Picco said amidst a bustle of activity at the Outreach Centre earlier this week as staff members finished serving lunch to dozens of young people.

“So when you think about trying to manage all those issues, usually simultaneously, being 16 up to 29 years old, it’s a lot to handle. And if you don’t have that support system to back you up and to help you when things are tough, it can be detrimental.”

As a way of helping raise funds for Choices for Youth and to bring awareness of the issues facing young people, the organization has kicked off its holiday campaign, Making Spirits Bright.

The Telegram is a campaign partner.

To make a donation, visit www.makingspiritsbrightnl.com.

“It can make a big difference in a young person’s life,” Picco said.

It certainly did for Newhook.

“Everybody needs help sometimes,” she said. “I’d just like to tell young people, don’t be afraid to reach out.”

 

rosie.mullaley@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelyRosie

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