Since 1914, YouthLink, formerly The Big Sister Association of Metropolitan Toronto has provided shelter and mental health services to tens of thousands of youth across The GTA.
In 1914, a formidable group of women, led by social worker Hilda Burns, banded together in community service to improve the lives of young girls. Little could they have imagined that what started as the Big Sister Movement would today continue as YouthLink. Throughout the years, the Big Sisters worked under different names all the while laying the foundation for many of the services for at-risk youth that YouthLink provides today. From counselling to education and housing accommodation, the Big Sisters blazed trails as they demonstrated the power of working in partnership for their community.
Joining Hilda Burns were other visionary Big Sisters, some teachers, many philanthropists and others, like Hilda, social service workers, all pledging to work with and advocate for teenage girls to “correct and prevent delinquency.” By 1916, the “movement” became The Big Sister Association.
Advocating for the rights of girls
YouthLink can trace its youth advocacy roots to 1918, the year the Big Sisters demonstrated their leadership in girls’ rights. The Big Sisters adopted a platform advocating for, among many things, good housing and supervised boarding homes for girls, as well as better education, including vocational training and guidance, and they looked to raise the school leaving age to 16. Unprecedented for their time, they also advocated for teaching sex hygiene in schools. They eventually set up a fund to help teenaged girls and young women overcome money challenges so they could go to school.
Formation of Circles
In 1922, Circles were formed as auxiliary groups of The Big Sister Association and members fundraised to provide practical assistance for such things as clothing, food and gifts at Christmas.
Counselling as a part of our history
Counselling services date back to 1926 when Helen Robertson, a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Social Work, joined The Big Sister Association. Later, in 1953, The Big Sister Association bought 34 Huntley Street in downtown Toronto, and by 1960 they began to provide counselling for girls 18 to 21 years old from that location. Another name change, The Big Sister Association of Metropolitan Toronto, followed in 1966.
Tutoring and Counselling
By 1972, Circle members began offering one-on-one tutoring to the young people at 34 Huntley Street. And in 1974, to reflect their expanding youth-in-crisis counselling support, the organization became Huntley Youth Services, employing both male and female caseworkers to work with boys and girls. In 1979, Youthline was launched and ultimately became a well-known telephone support system in Toronto for distressed young adults. By the 1980s an inner-city youth program was started to educate street youth about the realities of AIDs and prostitution, and in 1989 a sexual abuse survivors group was formed and Huntley Youth Services became the agency we know today, YouthLink.
Moving to Scarborough
In 2004, at the urging of the United Way, YouthLink relocated to Scarborough to respond to the acute lack of services for the rapidly growing population of vulnerable youth in that area.
The Big Sisters Circle members were ready and spearheaded a successful capital campaign that allowed YouthLink to purchase and renovate a building on Warden Avenue that would serve as its main office until 2019.
Big Sister Legacy Fund
The Big Sisters’ involvement in YouthLink has never waned. The Big Sister Legacy Fund was established in 2008 to provide financial support to YouthLink clients for their continued education through high school, college, university or apprenticeship training. Awards of up to $2,000 per applicant are available each year, and recipients are selected by a committee of Big Sisters and YouthLink staff.
Staying true to the legacy of its founders, YouthLink continues to provide a variety of housing options for youth, including its transitional shelter for homeless youth. The agency’s Pathways to Education is a community-based program designed to lower the dropout rate among high-school students from economically disadvantaged communities. YouthLink’s team of professional social workers, counsellors, child and youth workers, and youth peer educators provide a suite of services including counselling support for youth and families. YouthLink undertakes this work with incredible partners in government, education, the private sector and with other like-minded social service agencies. Thanks to the groundwork laid by The Big Sisters, YouthLink is currently accredited by the Canadian Centre for Accreditation and by Children’s Mental Health Association.
On June 4, 2014, for YouthLink’s 100th anniversary, 114 guests, including 40 Big Sisters, gathered at a luncheon at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club to commemorate that legacy. Prominent Toronto businessman John Honderich, son of Big Sister Florence Honderich, spoke of his mother’s involvement and of his childhood lived against the landscape of the work of these incredible women.
YouthLink continues to proudly carry the torch lit in 1914 and is forever grateful to The Big Sisters, many who now live on in memory and those surviving visionaries listed here.
Avenue Circle (est. 1975)
Gay Venture Circle (est. 1956)
Hope Page Circle (est. 1937)
Betty Van Wyck
For the complete history of our Big Sister Association of Metropolitan Toronto, read the 100th anniversary magazine.