OKN Logo

All Children and Youth Thrive!

I was driving with my teenaged son the other day and I had been mulling over my recent experience at the Our Kids Network Forum when I asked him what he thought makes a good relationship. In his wisdom he didn’t miss a beat and he replied with ‘openness’. He shared that if you aren’t open to sharing, contributing and maintaining a relationship you are not going to get very far and he then went on to share some examples with me from his interactions with friends, teachers and coaches.

Openness. Receptivity. Innovation. These are words I would also use to describe the mindset of my colleagues at Halton Our Kids Network (OKN). I have had the sheer privilege of sharing their approach with audiences across North America in my work with Positive Youth Development, and these qualities were once again front and centre at their recent Relationships First – Social Innovation for Human Connection Forum. This annual event is always over-subscribed and for good reason.

Too often we toil away in our agencies – hitting enrollment numbers, juggling budgets, dealing with the day-to-day challenges ranging from lost mittens, to family disruptions, to health challenges and more. We are immersed in the necessary functions, but sometimes drifting so far from what energizes us and drew us to this work in the first place, our feeling of contribution and of purpose. The Forum’s focus was on “Creating environments where meaningful relationships for children and youth will thrive.” As we came together, some as staff teams, some as single representatives from our organizations, we knew that this day would be different.

As we were entering the room, we instantly felt that OKN was shaking things up and the engaged buzz of conversation heightened our receptivity. The beautiful sound of cellos, violins, violas, keyboards and guitars was not coming from an iPod dock, but from real-live students – the Abbey Park Strings. The institutional lights in the auditorium were dimmed to create an intimate vibe more reminiscent of a coffee house. And the seating? You had your choice of everything; including tables, pods, desks, comfy couches and even carpet surrounded by a nook that took you back to story time.

They say the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and the planning team took this seriously. The food was amazing and the promise of what was coming out next was a great way to denote the transitions between speakers for the participants.
Our innovative hosts had created an environment for us where we could enrich our understanding and build our capacity to help children and youth to thrive. The program launched with a challenge from MC Jacqueline Newton, of the Halton District School Board, “to think about why we do the work that we do” as we experienced the program.


The presenters at the Forum embodied the elements of Developmental Relationships* 

Left to right: Drew Donaldson, Craig Woodhall, Annyse Balkwill, Kiron Mukherjee, Mike Gallant


Challenge Growth – The day began with Rick Boersma’s Innovation in a Box approach to collaborating. Rick stretched our traditional understanding of brainstorming utilizing his structured innovation process and practical tools to help us learn from our experiences. Rick assured us that, “The act of feeling frustrated is part of finding the solution. By utilizing tools and processes to frame the dialogue the frustration may not last as long and this will help move us to innovation.”

Expand Possibilities – Mike Gallant and Drew Donaldson from the Halton District School Board connected us with new ideas, experiences and the unique location of a cloud to build relationships. Openness to broadening our horizons and exploring new ways to connect are hallmarks of innovation and we look forward to learning more about how we can potentially utilize these tools in our work environments.

Express Care – Annyse Balkwill of the LuminUS Group reminded us that to unlock our collective wisdom we need to make a choice about our mindset when we show up and that we need to do so with intention. The warmth and encouragement that set the tone for her presentation (right down to her bare feet!), conveyed that paying attention to the process combined with trust helps us move forward toward our true purpose – why we do the work we do.

Share Power – Byng Leadership’s Craig Woodhall helped us make the most of our leadership potential and understand that even at the highest level of organizational leadership, we need to ask ourselves at the end of every day what we did to live the values we believe in. He said, “When you lead yourself in a better way you are prepared to lead others.”

Provide Support – Kiron Mukherjee’s enthusiastic storytelling and passion for his work with the Royal Ontario Museum’s family and children’s programs was a perfect way to wrap up the Forum. His ability to empower his campers with a life-long curiosity through hands-on learning while establishing boundaries to keep people on track with actions as simple as hanging out at the door to send the campers off at the end of the day provided us with simple actions we can employ in our own environments.

When all was said and done at the Forum, OKN modelled for participants exactly what we need to do in order to create environments where meaningful relationships for children and youth will thrive. The openness of OKN to sharing resources and training at the Forum exemplifies the importance of putting the building of relationships first. The openness to collaboration that OKN personifies is evident in the shared commitment from the Protocol Partners to maintain a solid foundation. The openness to sharing data and contributing to the efforts of each individual participant in OKN is rarely observed in regional and municipal collaborations.

Thinking back to the car ride home with my son, I wondered how the same child who can’t seem to find the dirty clothes hamper could be so aware of such an essential element of our basic human connection – openness. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for good parenting, at least on the well-rounded deep thinker I’m raising. We still need to work on instilling good housekeeping habits, but that’s material for another blog!

*Learn more about Developmental Relationships


Pat Howell-Blackmore – As principal and founder of PHB Spark Consulting, Pat focuses on providing consulting services related to group development, community development, capacity building, program research, development and evaluation. Pat has acted as a contributor and developer for original resources, training models, revisions and international editions on topics including Positive Youth Development, group facilitation, Asset Building, Social-Emotional Learning, Service-Learning, strategic communications, game-based learning, community engagement, conflict management, and community capacity building.
@PHBSpark   pathowellblackmore@gmail.com