SURREY - A counsellor who works with at-risk Surrey children is making a difference by connecting with kids on a personal level.
For the past four years, Matt Johnston, a former standout at Simon Fraser University who later competed on Canada's national cross-country team, has been a contracted counsellor to the Surrey school district. He sees students who range in age from five to 18.
"It's a prevention-based model," he said about starting to work with kids at an elementary school age. "The idea is to catch kids before they go down that slippery slope."
But he also continues to work with the children into high school, helping them stay on the right track.
Before beginning the program in 2008, Johnston's caseload was 80 per cent full. Since then, he's operated at or above capacity. He's had a total of 81 clients referred over the four years, 74 of which became active clients.
He works with children mainly in the Whalley area, with much work done at Bridgeview Elementary and Kwantlen Park Secondary.
About 90 per cent of his students are living below the poverty line or part of working poor families, and 45 per cent of his students are living in poverty and experiencing neglect.
"That is toxic to childhood development. I want to bring awareness to what I've identified. If it was surprising to me, I know it would be a good educational tool."
Johnston spoke to Surrey's Social Planning Advisory Committee earlier this year and provided the statistics he's gathered during his time as a counsellor in Surrey.
Of the students he works with, one in four are referred to him because of bullying and six out of 10 clients have depression.
"That's quite an alarming number," he said.
The most high-risk pre-teens referred to Johnston so far have come to him at the cusp of becoming entrenched in heavier issues, such as substance abuse, gang entrenchment, criminal activity and teen pregnancy.
But despite the stats he's collected, Johnston said he believes he can truly make a difference.
"When you have a supportive environment, you can achieve great things," he said, which is what he strives to provide.
Johnston describes his program as child-centred, and relationship modelled. He provides mobile service, and has out-of-office counselling sessions whenever possible.
He prefers to use adventure-based and play therapy, cardiovascular activity and even pet therapy to reach children on a personal level.
His rescue dog Soul goes everywhere with him.
"He's more popular than I am," Johnston joked. "He's a really good metaphor to work with: Unfortunately, he didn't come from a good background, but he can still do great things."
And Johnston has taken his students on nature walks, spent time playing sports and has even taken kids to a riverbank to create art.
"It's definitely not school-based counselling," he said of his work. "I see kids in a fundamentally different light than I would in schools."
Since 2008, he has received funding from CKNW Orphans' Fund, to the tune of $40,000 a year, to offer his services. This summer, the program will amalgamate with South Fraser Community Services to be more accessible to clients and expand existing services.
Johnston recalled a moment that made him realize he was really connecting with his kids.
"I remember one kid was moving to Coquitlam. He asked me if I had Facebook. That, to me, is a sign of success. That child feels an attachment to me. These little things kind of show the impact I've had.
"I'd love to run into these kids 20 years from now," he said.
Rick Breen, principal at Kwantlen Park Secondary, said Johnston's work is making a difference.
"Matt has a ton of different talents. One strong talent is building connections and relationships with young people and having young people trust him," Breen said, adding that relationships lie at the heart of schooling.
"Some at-risk kids might not have the most stable home life, or most positive home life, or most engaged or caring parents for a variety of different reasons. Matt provides that solid support to these kids."
When kids have trouble fitting in, Johnston is often able to help.
"They just bond with him and he's able to reach them on a different level," Breen said. "That's helped some of our kids significantly."