The origins of YouthLink began in 1914, with the formation of the Big Sister Association of Metropolitan Toronto. The Big Sister Association began as a befriending service for teenage girls involved in the court system and who had no family support or guidance. The Association assumed the responsibility for the well-being of these young women, teaching them life skills and providing them with practical aid such as food, clothing, employment and education.
Initially, the services were provided by solely by volunteers but within ten years, a social worker was hired to train and support volunteers.
Volunteers members gradually began to work together in groups which led to the formation of a number of Big Sister Circles in North and West Toronto. Circle members formed the core group of volunteers and fundraisers who led the Association. The first circles to form were Lawrence Park and York in 1922.
Over the next 50 years or so, other circles emerged, disbanded and/or joined others including: Rosedale, Margaret Scott, Hope Page, Gay Venture, Oriole, Hill, Kingsway, Avenue, Jubilee and Humber. Today, Gay Venture, Humber and Hope Page members continue to gather monthly for Circle meetings. Some of the members have been involved now for 70 years!
The Circle members raised funds for the Big Sister Association and offered support in many different ways including:
In 1953, the Big Sisters bought 34 Huntley Street for its main office and opened the Big Sister Counselling Service.
In 1964, the Big Sisters raised funds to purchase the building that is now the Madison Residence. Also in 1964, the Circles consolidated their fundraising efforts and opened the Big Sister Thrift Shop on Avenue Road in north Toronto. The shop was a thriving business for 43 years and provided an important source of revenue for the agency until the shop closed in 2007, as it was becoming difficult to sustain the volunteer base.
In 1973, the Association purchased the first co-op house which offered housing to four young women and support to help them live independently. The Circle members would make weekly visit to the co-op, offering mentorship and support. Since then, three more co-op houses have been added to YouthLink’s services, now with live-in mentors.
In 1974, the Big Sister Association changed its name to Huntley Youth Services and opened its services to both male and female clients, and continued to expand services throughout Toronto. In 1980, the Inner City Drop-In was established for homeless youth, and in 1983, a branch office in Scarborough was established. In 1989, the name changed to YouthLink.
In 2004, following a capital campaign, YouthLink sold Huntley Street and relocated the main office to Scarborough to respond to the acute lack of services available for a rapidly growing population of vulnerable youth in the region.