It’s been 24 years since an Esquimalt-based non-profit set out to equip youth with the tools they need to resolve conflict properly, and today the WITS Programs Foundation has expanded its reach globally.
Born in 1997 as the Rock Solid Foundation, the non-profit popularized the Walk away, Ignore, Talk it out, and Seek (WITS) help strategies to help prevent violence in schools and among the Greater Victoria region’s youth.
“We wanted kids to know that there are options to get things that they feel uncomfortable with to stop,” said Tom Woods, the foundation’s current vice-president and one of its founders.
“We went to a couple of high schools to do some presentations and they were well-received, but sadly, Reena Virk was murdered right when we had just started this, and suddenly we became a hot commodity.”
The program quickly spread across the country as it seemed its casual, fun approach, rather than the lecture-style talks students were used to, resonated well. Now retired from the policing job which got him involved with the foundation in its early days, Woods said he never thought at the time the program would become as widespread as it is today, but he is proud to have played a role in making society better.
Anecdotally, he said there have been far fewer violent incidents involving youth since the program’s launch.
Executive director Andy Telfer said throughout society, people have become more willing to take action when something is not right – a key part of the program’s message – but in order to accomplish that the program had to evolve.
“Over the last two years especially, we took another look at the program, and we decided to advance it through a diversity and inclusion lens while making it as accessible as possible,” said Telfer. “We got to the point where some of its elements had older language, older imagery, and parts of the website were not up to spec, so we revised everything to make it easier to access online.”
Even before the program was revamped, Telfer said it was studied by Dalhousie University researchers and compared with five other programs with similar goals, and the researchers determined WITS was the only program they would recommend to schools.
But even with that success, they know the foundation must continue to evolve even further, and in recent years have begun expanding it beyond offering the WITS program.
It now has a partnership with Pink Shirt Day co-founder Travis Price to deliver a cross-Canada live webcast every February on Pink Shirt Day, and has launched the Canadian Kindness Leaders initiative, which inspires youth to create and implement their own ways to spread kindness.
The first year of the CKL initiative saw projects ranging from sock collection drives for people experiencing homelessness, to a lobbying effort to get a walkway paved for mobility-challenged students, and visits with isolated seniors.
Telfer said further expansions into cyberbullying education and more could be coming in the near future.
For those interested in learning more about the foundation and the programs it offers, visit their website at witsprogram.ca.