Charlene Blais has worked in a variety of industries, but the one that grabbed her early — and the one she ultimately returned to — stemmed from a passion for helping young people.
“I’m not one of those people who always had a plan,” Blais says. “I participated in a youth cultural exchange program when I was 17. I lived in Colombia, and for me, it underscored the opportunities that exist for young people in Canada. Little did I know what impact that would have on the rest of my life.”
Today, Blais serves as a workforce developer with the YMCA Okanagan Youth Works program, where she acts as a liaison between employers seeking fresh hires and young adults looking for meaningful employment.
Blais’ role involves a unique combination of classroom facilitation — helping youth to find jobs, skills training and education opportunities — and gauging the needs of local industry. She often finds herself matching individual values, interests and skills to local labour market data to identify opportunities for young people.
“It’s employment counseling, but there’s so much more involved in it. I work for the YMCA, which is a non-profit, but I work in business — I help market young people to businesses. It’s an interesting blend of values.”
Blais notes that young people almost always underestimate their value in the labour market, and often need encouragement and education around marketing their skills. And thanks to her unique background, Blais is well positioned to empathize with Youth Works clients and find the unconventional opportunities that are often hiding in plain sight.
“Our family was a foster family, and I think that experience broadened my perspective of people’s experiences. Living in Colombia helped with respect to diversity — there’s a lot of value in diversity. Being a curious person and having a genuine interest in people tends to make work more interesting.”
Blais’ interest in people extends beyond her work with the YMCA. The employment counselor avidly supports local community initiatives around wellness and art, citing their importance to a fulfilled life.
“No matter what we do, it connects to our wellness and our mental health. (That’s why) I volunteer at CMHA special events. I’m big on volunteerism in general — it’s such a huge part of feeling connected to the community.”
Though youth career counseling may seem like a challenging field, Blais says that she doesn’t view her work as a challenge. Rather, she views her work as building relationships with youth — relationships that allow her to identify the most appropriate career and education opportunities. And when she’s able to move youth forward in well-suited education and career paths, that’s when Blais feels most fulfilled.
“What I love most about my job is the creative process of generating ideas of what opportunities to connect young adults to. I meet such a range of people with unique skill sets and career journeys. I love making a match that works for the employer and the worker, and that creates a ripple effect on those who benefit from both.”
She notes that matching young people with their ideal careers gives her an opportunity to help young adults see their worth — and that they have a place in the community.
Blais has worked in front-line employment counseling services since 2000, and she loves encountering former clients years later and hearing their success stories.
“I love helping people move forward in their lives. (My job) involves community, being social, and a dynamic combination of non-profit and business. Plus, it’s always very heart-warming to bump into adults who were once my young client sand see them thriving in the careers they worked toward. I get to see them come full circle!”
And while social services are her passion, the 16-year industry veteran maintains a healthy work-life balance that inspires her to keep going.
Blais is a health and nature enthusiast, and when she’s not guiding young adults toward fulfilling career paths, she often jogs and hikes. A proud supporter of the arts, she can often be found attending visual art and dance events. Blais’ interest in culture also extends to languages — she’s fluent in French and Spanish, and teaches both languages to groups of keen learners.
But it’s her passion for community improvement that keeps her involved in local initiatives, and her experience in the front-line social services has given her insights into the key factors that make communities work.
“Having community partners on board is vital, as is knowing when to refer and who to refer to. In the future I’d like to have some kind of involvement in social policy development. I’m interested in continuing studies and public administration as it relates to large-scale community involvement. I don’t know exactly how that will play out, but it’s something I’ve started to explore.”
Crowe MacKay’s Women to Watch program is a weekly feature that profiles remarkable women in our community, concluding October 16. After terrific response, the nomination period for 2015 is now closed. Watch this space each week to see our remaining Women to Watch.