Matthew Li is the Wasa-Nabin Urban Aboriginal Youth Program Worker at the Timmins Native Friendship Centre’s satellite site in Moosonee. He is the son of the Rev. Simon Li, incumbent of St. John, Willowdale.
The Timmins Native Friendship Centre provides a wide range of programs and services to support and improve the lives of aboriginal people living in urban environments. In my role as the Wasa-Nabin Youth Worker, I work with youth between the ages of 13 and 18. The program focuses on providing at-risk aboriginal youth with support, tools, and healthy activities that build upon their inherent ability to make healthy choices. In practice, this is done through one-to-one support services, as well as facilitation of community programs for youth ranging from sports and recreation to cultural education and activities.
The best part of my job is being able to connect with youth and witness them discovering their potential and rising beyond their circumstances. It’s been so inspiring to connect with them based on the things they are interested in, and to see them open up and develop the courage and enthusiasm to believe that they can dream big and contribute in a meaningful way. My time with the youth here so far has confirmed my belief in the value of trusting and truly investing in the potential of youth to be leaders.
I’m not sure there is a worst part of my job. If I had to pick any, it would have to be the limited resources and infrastructure here in Moosonee. It’s a major obstacle to securing and developing programs for the youth with the lack of resources. But at the same time, these very challenges are also at the centre of bringing youth together. Making the best of what we have, collaborating with community members and organizations, getting creative, and being ambitious to develop new things that meet the needs of the youth and community – that’s what’s most rewarding!
I grew up in Toronto and lived there my entire life. A huge influence on my direction in life has been my parents’ consistent support and encouragement to develop myself as a person and expand my perspective. Their example of service to others has also been engrained in my worldview of what a good life is. I’ve been very fortunate to have travelled around the world quite a bit, and that’s opened my eyes in so many ways. And of course my wife Sarah, whom I’ve been with for almost 10 years, has also played an enormous role in shaping me into the person I am today. She has been a reflection to me of all my flaws and strengths, challenging me to be a better person and growing together through all our adventures.
My wife came to Moosonee on a field study three years ago as a university student. She was so inspired by the people and culture here that she came back to Toronto determined to eventually return. Our paths in life truly aligned when I also became inspired to work with the aboriginal community at the Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Toronto that same year. After finishing our post-secondary studies, we were set on working with an aboriginal community, and since Sarah already had connections to Moosonee we decided to come here. That being a highly condensed version of our journey, I can’t leave out that I truly believe that our journey here has been a blessing and been guided by powers greater than us.
Moosonee is drastically different than Toronto in many ways. There’s no road access here, so you have to take a train north or fly. There are no paved roads or traffic lights. You can drive from one end of town to the other, with a population of about 3,000, in about 10 minutes. And food is way more expensive and limited in variety. But the remoteness of Moosonee has also grown on me quite a bit. The culture is much more relaxed than the constant bustle of the city, nature is all around and the bush is literally a few steps from your door. Most people are very welcoming and friendly, and I’ve been able to meet people and develop relationships more deeply than I had in the big city. Most of all, it has been inspiring to see how resilient and resourceful the youth are.
My experience here has changed me quite drastically. I had always planned on becoming a high school English teacher, because a teacher had reached out to me in high school when I was on a bad path, saw my potential and gave me the support I needed to excel and change my direction. I wanted to give that same kind of support and inspiration to at-risk youth. However, working with the Friendship Centre has shown me a whole other way of connecting with youth through recreation and community initiatives. Though I still believe in the power of education in a classroom, I see that the possibilities to connect with youth and empower them to make tangible changes in their own lives and in the community are way more open and free in a social service position like the Wasa-Nabin program. My experience here has inspired me to change my direction in life towards this path of youth work and community development.
I absolutely believe that God has played a large role in my experiences. With all of the doors that have opened for me and my wife, the people who have inspired and supported us, and the experiences we’ve been so fortunate to have had and been challenged with, our journey has been so beautiful and blessed that it’s impossible for me to attribute it to just mere coincidence or fate. I see blessings and providence at every step of our journey, though at times it’s not until some time has passed that I’m able to more clearly see how certain challenges or experiences have played their role in our journey.
I don’t have a favourite passage from scripture, but Psalm 23 resonates with me and has been a passage of scripture that I’ve known for a long time. I guess throughout my journey, the adventures and the challenges, this passage has related well and I’ve been able to find comfort and new meaning in it from time to time.
In five years I could be anywhere! But I want to be in a position where I can continue to work with aboriginal youth and in community development. In the past couple years, I’ve begun to learn that life is always changing and the doors of opportunity always opening, at times in the most unexpected ways. So although I do have plans, for me it’s more about making the most of where I am and connecting as best I can with the people around me. I try to remain open to the opportunities that present themselves and trust that things will happen in a good way and as they should.