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Former troubled teen becomes lifeline for local youth

'My life very easily could have gone in a very different direction - arrested, jail, young parent,' Shawn Ashe admits
Shawn Ashe
Shawn Ashe with his daughter Chloe (supplied photo)

For Shawn Ashe, growing up in a 3-bedroom apartment, with parents who were busy providing, meant love was plentiful, but supervision was lacking.

“I grew up in the Kingsdale area, 551 Vanier Dr - Apt 219,” he recalls. “My dad worked at Kraus Carpets and my parents also worked as landlords for the apartment building.”

Extended family in the same complex meant running free with cousins - playing sports, swimming, and bike riding. The liberty of his childhood would lead to poor decisions as a teen, including drinking, drugs and promiscuity. “I spent most of my teen years fighting with my mom, treating her in a way that I absolutely regret. I was drinking regularly, using drugs, selling drugs, being promiscuous, driving while intoxicated - all things I am not proud of.” Ashe says.

The transition to high school would introduce a new obstacle - a school bus bully. He would ride various routes in hopes of throwing off his tormenter. “It was lots of threats that came with bumping and pushing when he did see me.” Fear of appearing weak meant he would face this alone.

In hindsight, he admits his troubles began when he started thinking he needed more than his parents could provide - becoming a regular at local bars, at 17, and “stealing at the stores because it was cool.”

“My life very easily could have gone in a very different direction - arrested, jail, young parent.”

Sports would be a safe place to let out the aggression, fear and pain – this would also lead him to the YMCA. “The YMCA was the safe, positive place for me where I was challenged, supported and mentored. It was the one place that I had structure, routine, and expectation.”

At the Y, he says he was held accountable by mentors who were invested in his future – providing the “tough love” he needed. Ashe credits his “Y family” for “tugging him in a new direction.”

Unable to finance his membership, he would be forced to cancel. “Jason Schwartz who worked at the Y and was a cool senior at my high school was pretty much like, nope, that is not happening. He worked his magic and my membership continued without having to pay for a few months,” he says.

This would also lead to his first job with the YMCA, as a camp counsellor.

Today, Ashe is the Director of Membership, YMCAs of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo. He’s made a career of sharing his story, inspiring local youth to think beyond the torments of adolescence.

“I think, as adults, we hold young people to such high expectations. To be blunt, we are hypocrites.” We expect too much from teens who are watching the adults around them make poor choices. “They deserve more patience, forgiveness, empathy, and support,” says Ashe.

“Social media and technology have changed the game for them and high school graduation rates in our region are in the lowest quarter for the province.”

According to Ashe, the YMCA serves upwards of 70,000 people across Waterloo Region annually and 50% of those are under the age of 18. Research shows teens and young adults (ages 12-25) whose life-stage needs are supported are less likely to engage in risky behaviours (such as deviance or drug abuse) and report fewer negative health impacts (such as depression or unhealthy levels of stress). Although adolescents living in high-risk situations need additional support, investing in the health of all young people creates healthier communities.

When asked what his advice would be for strugging teens, he says, “everyone has a story, writing it will take time.  Finding your place involves struggle, hardships and challenges. Learn from your mistakes and don’t be afraid to make them. Surround yourself with positive people that will lift you up with inspiration and optimism.” 

You can help support YMCA youth programs here

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