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Caitlynn Stranger, a staff member at the North Y Youth Centre in Winnipeg, works with children Thursday, May 17, 2012. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)
Caitlynn Stranger, a staff member at the North Y Youth Centre in Winnipeg, works with children Thursday, May 17, 2012. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

From shoplifter to role model: how one teen turned her life around Add to ...

Caitlynn Stranger might not seem like a role model. She's not a CEO or a globe-trotting philanthropist. In fact, she's just 17 and given to fits of nervous giggles when talking to reporters. But wherever she goes, a pack of adoring fans follows – they're the tweens and teens of the North End Y in Winnipeg, where Ms. Stranger works or volunteers every single day.

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It's hard to believe that two years ago, her life was headed down a darker path, growing up in an underserved neighbourhood where drugs and crime hold more appeal than canoe trips and campfires. But through the YMCA's Strong Kids Campaign, which has funded $25-million so far in youth programs, she took a leadership course that changed her life for the better. Now she's helping other kids learn valuable skills, whether on the climbing wall or on the street.

First steps

It started in 2010, when Ken Mason, the North End Y Youth Centre's manager, caught me out behind the building doing something I shouldn't have been doing. He sent me home, but my mom marched me right back and forced me to register for a membership. Then I got in trouble with the cops for shoplifting, and I had to do community service hours at the Y, cleaning windows and stuff. I hated it and my friends made so much fun of me. I was hanging out with the wrong group of people back then.

Aha! moment

After I finished my community service, I found out that the Strong Kids Campaign was going to fund me for an eight-day canoe trip in Lake of the Woods, where I'd learn how to be a camp counsellor. We did a high ropes course, where you're balancing 40 feet [12 metres]off the ground. It's a wee bit scary, but you learn a lot. There were 12 of us and I ended up making some really close friends.

What I do

Three days a week, I have a job belaying kids on the indoor rock climbing wall at the Youth Centre. The rest of the time, I'm here after school supervising group activities or playing games with them.

The pitch

Working with the younger kids, I've learned that I can be a caring, respectful, responsible person and set a good example for them. If I hadn’t got funding from the Y, there’s no way I would have been able to do any of this.

My heroes

My mom, who pushed my five sisters and me to get more involved with the Y, and Ken. Without them, I think I would have gotten into even more trouble than I already had.

Next steps

I’ve saved up enough money from my part-time job at the Y to register for a month-long canoe trip in Northern Ontario in July. And I’m writing my Grade 12 exams soon. I’ll be the first person in my family to graduate high school on time. I might do some travelling for a while, and then I’m thinking about pursuing a career in psychology or law.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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