Surrey teens take charge amid weak employment outlook

SURREY — Over the past six months, job growth in Canada has been predominantly stagnant, compared with the continuous rise Statistics Canada reported from 2009 until around the start of 2013. The job market in B.C. was similarly sluggish overall, and for British Columbians between the ages of 15 and 24, unemployment has only recently edged down below 12 per cent after hovering at that rate or higher since last year.

So if there’s one demographic in Surrey that should be paying close attention to job numbers, it’s the city’s youth.

Right now, one in three Surreyites is under the age of 19, making the city one of the youngest in the country. As this massive demographic enters the working world or post-secondary education, a question arises: Where do these people fit into a world where jobs are hard to come by and university is both expensive and academically challenging to get into?

A recent Surrey School District survey showed that from 2005 to 2008, there was a 10 per cent increase in the number of Grade 12 students planning for postsecondary studies. The City of Surrey has also taken steps to accommodate the influx of youth leaving high school and venturing into the larger world.

In 2012, the editors of Canada’s Top 100 Employers project named Surrey one of Canada’s top employers for young people, ranking the city high for its efforts to help students make the transition from university to full-time careers.

Two local Semiahmoo Secondary School students have taken matters into their own hands – creating their own non-profit organization, and their own jobs in the process.

Seventeen-year-olds Jill Xu and Ginny Liu, enrolled in the school’s international baccalaureate program that lets gifted students get a jump-start on postsecondary courses, have also made time to found Caring About Communities Together to Eliminate Struggles (CACTES).

The association, which raises money to tackle global issues such as water pollution and poverty, started last summer when Xu and Liu, inspired by their experiences in other countries, decided to create a non-profit organization.

Xu had just come back from the Dominican Republic, where more than a third of the country’s population lives in poverty.

"I was deeply moved by how the locals were able to deal with such inconceivable situations, where simply to exist posed a challenge."

Liu had travelled to China as a child; the living conditions she witnessed, such as a lack of clean drinking water and clothing, also left a lasting impression.

CACTES has already raised $5,000 toward a gravity-fed water system for a village in Nepal. The construction of the system is complete and was done through a partnership with Tamakoshi Sewa Samiti, a government-funded organization that provides workers to teach the villagers how to build and maintain the system.

Currently Xu and Liu are operating CACTES out of Beta Collective, a cooperative office space in Surrey that is the brainchild of a few former Simon Fraser University students who have carved out a new niche in the city’s burgeoning economic sector.

Beta Collective lets CACTES keep overhead low and provides many services they normally wouldn’t be able to afford.

Liu said when she and Xu first started CACTES, many of their friends and classmates were skeptical and unwilling to get behind their cause.

"Many of them doubted our abilities to start an organization and told us it would be extremely difficult to accomplish our dream," Liu said.

However, the two received help from David James Wang, president of SDC Blue Ribbon Foundation, an international non-profit organization that helps children with disabilities.

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