Helping vulnerable youth find real connection in a digital world

The TELUS Mobility for Good program is dialing up success for Ontario’s young adults, like Brittany Milla (pictured), as they transition out of care.

The day Brittany Milla turned 18, her whole world changed.

When most kids are celebrating a major milestone in their lives, Brittany’s 18th birthday was marked by the loss of many of the financial and emotional resources that had helped to sustain her throughout an otherwise unsettled childhood.

She was seven when she and her younger brother were taken into the Ontario child welfare system. The siblings moved through several short-term foster homes before they were split up and sent to live with different families.

At 18, Brittany began her transition out of the child welfare system. That meant finding her own place to live, buying groceries, and paying for heating and electricity -- all on a tight monthly allowance and zero credit. With barely enough money to cover her rent in her Brantford community, she took the bus to the local food bank and struggled home with the donated food and toiletries she needed to get her through the toughest of times. Worse, unable to afford a mobile phone or internet connection, she felt isolated from a vital network of supporters and resource providers who’d helped her to cope throughout her teenage years.

“It was brutal,” she recalls of the experience.

Every year about 2,300 youth age out of Canada’s child welfare system. Many, like Brittany, are not prepared to transition to independent life and don’t have the support of permanent families to help them get on their feet. Without the proper resources available, many young people leaving the system find the transition to independence difficult to navigate and face increased risks of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns, anxiety, depression and suicide.

“When you become an adult, stability and structure is something you need, but how do you have that when you were never given stability or structure growing up,” she says. “You are basically all on your own.”

Now 22, Brittany can still recall with vivid clarity the fear and alienation that threatened to envelope her -- just as she was starting to build her own life. Although she’s come a long way, it’s still an uphill battle to afford the basic amenities that many Canadians take for granted. So when she learned of a new program in Ontario that is specifically designed to help vulnerable young Canadians like her stay connected with friends, family, educators and employers, she jumped at it.

Called TELUS Mobility for Good, the program equips young adults transitioning from the child welfare system with a smartphone and a free wireless plan for two years. As part of the company’s efforts to bridge the digital divide for at-risk Canadians, TELUS launched the program in Ontario earlier this year in partnership with Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada. The company offers a similar program in British Columbia, with plans to make it available to thousands more young adults across the country this year.

The program gives participants unlimited talk and text nationwide, as well as 3GB of data per month. And though it’s free of charge, participants will still receive bills in their name, giving them the chance to build a credit score.

Valerie McMurtry, president and CEO, Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, called the program “a life-changing and potentially life-saving connection” for the thousands of young Canadians who are transitioning out of care. For these kids, a smartphone is “a lifeline to helping them achieve independence,” she said.

Brittany is among the Ontario program’s first recipients and is grateful to have the cushion of support as she moves to get her life on track. It’s a big change from when she first tried to get a cell phone from a low-cost carrier a few years ago. With no credit history and no family to back her up financially, she was denied because she couldn’t afford the $500 deposit. It was a big blow, impeding almost every aspect of her life, from securing an apartment to job hunting and scheduling schooling.

“You can’t exist without a cell phone. Without it, you lose quality of life. But if you choose to have a phone, you lose something else, like food,” she says of the difficult choices she was previously forced to make.

These days, the future is looking bright; Brittany is back in touch with her younger brother, serves as a youth ambassador for Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada and is heading to Wilfrid Laurier University in the fall to become a social worker. But she worries for others out there who still feel cut off from the world.

It’s why, when she talks of Mobility for Good, it brings tears to her eyes.

“It’s a very practical program,” she says. “But it is actually changing people’s lives.”

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