Before Fitsum Areguy completed his high-school diploma, he helped his parents earn theirs. As the first-born son of new immigrants, Areguy needed to be both translator and advocate for his family growing up. He spoke with government agencies, paid bills and navigated the complex healthcare system when his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Now Areguy, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, uses his experiences as a young caregiver to raise awareness and enhance resources for the estimated one million Canadian youth who provide their families with emotional, financial or physical support each day.
When youth have adult responsibilities
Winner of a 2016 Ontario Young Volunteers Award — the highest honour a young person can achieve for volunteer contributions to the province — Areguy has clocked over 200 hours with the Young Carers Project, a local non-profit organization run in partnership with Waterloo’s Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program. The project aims to educate the public about the needs of young carers.
“Being a young carer isn’t always a choice you make. Most often it’s a responsibility you are given,” said Areguy, a student in Waterloo’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. “For a long time I was hesitant to talk about my home life, my experiences. But I realized if I can help others in my situation, I needed to.”
Estimates suggest that up to 12 per cent of Canadians under the age of 25 are young carers. Last year, a Waterloo study found that children and youth who help care for family members are not adequately supported by community service agencies.
“For me, and I’m sure others in my shoes, you often feel like your needs come last. Much of my volunteer work is focused on enhancing community support for young people, who by circumstance have adult-like responsibilities. We’ve got to do a better job of supporting this significant, but often overlooked, demographic.”
Better support for young care givers
As part of his volunteer role with the Young Carers Project, Areguy helped write a new resource guide, Support Matters, to help youth cope with common stressors. He is also featured in a new video documentary on the topic, and regularly speaks at public events to raise awareness.
“Volunteering has given me the opportunity to put my values and beliefs into action which brings great meaning and beautiful moments to my life. It was amazing to be recognized for the work I do, but most importantly it serves as an opportunity to advocate for the causes I’m passionate about.”
On top of his work with the Young Carers Project, Areguy is an active volunteer with Reach For It and Male Allies. He also works part-time at the YMCA, Victoria Place Retirement Residence and the City of Kitchener’s Youth & Inclusion Services.