Youth leadership has been at the heart of Canteen since a group of young people with cancer set up the organisation in 1985. All young people supported by Canteen aged 16 or above can take up leadership opportunities – from local projects to Board membership. Canteen is unique in that most of its Board, including the Chair of the Board, are young people.
As part of Canteen’s Impact Team, I set out to understand more about the benefits of youth leadership for young people affected by cancer as well as for Canteen itself. We conducted close to 80 hours of interviews with 33 young leaders and 25 staff and found immense personal and professional benefits for young leaders including:
- Strong connections: Leaders described the long-lasting relationships they built with other leaders and staff; these enabled leaders to work purposefully together to achieve their passions.
- Caring for other people: Leaders gained insight into other people’s worlds. These insights translated into skills to support and advocate for what other young people needed from Canteen.
- Skills: Leaders developed leadership skills – teamwork, problem-solving, communication, public speaking, organisation, project and event management – and applied those skills beyond Canteen in their study, careers, and communities.
- Confidence: Leaders developed the belief they could achieve great things, and the confidence to give things a go even if they were nervous or afraid. They described how leadership helped them to regain a sense of control after a cancer experience.
- Character and identity: For some leaders, leadership brought a sense of meaning to their cancer experience – it was something positive that had come out of a difficult time.
We also found that leadership not only benefited young leaders, it made a difference to Canteen and the lives of many other people.
Young leaders do an amazing job of connecting with other young people who use Canteen’s services. They inspire others to join Canteen events, share their cancer experience and speak up about how Canteen can best support them.
Importantly, engaging young people through leadership helps Canteen stay relevant and useful to the people we support.
Having young people advising at every level of Canteen helps to ensure we live our mission of being in the corner of every young person when cancer crashes into their world.
Leaders’ stories shine a light on the impact of cancer on young people and families. When leaders share their stories, the community listens. This helps more young people and families learn about and access Canteen and inspires our fabulous supporters to get involved with Canteen.
Canteen’s Youth Leadership Framework also provides a model of youth empowerment that could be applied in other community and health services.
It shows how organisations can improve the relevance and appropriateness of their services by providing meaningful opportunities for consumers to contribute to service delivery and direction.
We are using these research findings to further shape and improve youth leadership at Canteen.
About the author
Senior Research and Evaluation Officer
Kristina joined the Research, Evaluation & Social Policy team at Canteen in 2016. Her current work focuses on understanding the need for and impact of Canteen's programs and services.