Meet Ryan, Our Youth Engagement Coordinator

Last month Dan Kostka, a longtime friend and volunteer of The Doorway, sat down with Ryan McAuley, our Youth Engagement Coordinator. Dan wanted to give our community an opportunity to get to know one of the committed and thoughtful people working alongside youth at The Doorway. Listen to the extended conversation on Dan’s podcast Calgary In Depth or read a condensed version at the bottom of this page.

Ryan McAuley joined The Doorway in March of this year as a Youth Engagement Coordinator. At the time, he was only familiar the My Plan portion — giving small amounts of cash to homeless youth for talking about and setting down their goals.

“I loved the My Plan idea,” Ryan says, “because I was like, ‘Well, you’re getting an incentive for thinking about this, but you are consistently thinking about what you might want to do in your life.’

“I really liked that idea, it being your own journey, and not having someone trying to control it for you.”

Ryan’s personal journey has always involved helping people. He’s been employed in social work for about five years. Prior to that, he did pastoral work. His volunteer work has taken him to other countries. He helped build a hospital in a village in Haiti. In Peru, he assisted at an orphanage for physically disabled youth, taking kids to the hospital for checkups, playing with them, just spending time with them.

Ryan also worked at a before-and-after school program for young children prior to and during university. He studied ministry and leadership at Ambrose University. His work experience includes three years at the Alex Youth Health Centre. He has also worked at Triveri House, which assists homeless and vulnerable youth.

As the youth engagement coordinator, Ryan cultivates relationships with other organizations that assist the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. This leads to referrals of potential participants. He also does street outreach, making sure young people on the street know what The Doorway offers. And he is regularly found at The Doorway, contracting with participants.

Ryan recently sat down with one of The Doorway’s volunteers, Dan Kostka, to discuss what motivates him to do this work and the challenges faced by young people who are on the street.

Dan: Is your faith what brought you to this kind of work?

Ryan: I enjoyed doing pastoral work but then I decided that I didn’t agree with the tenets of Christianity anymore, but I still really wanted to help people in some way, shape, or form, and so social work seemed like a natural transition.

But I think even when I was in the church, I felt like there was a real disconnect between the people in church and this other world that I was observing, which is kind of the street culture, and I always had more of a heart for that anyway. And I always wrestled with the tension between people who are more part of mainstream, or people who are more normative, and this other side of things, where I’d just go down to the streets by myself and just hand out granola bars to people.

Dan: You were doing that on your own initiative?

Ryan: Yeah, totally. And at that point I would just pray with them or just hang with them. A lot of it was selfish on some level, because I was just much more interested in that world than the world that I was currently existing in. I always kind of had the heart for it, I always thought it was really interesting. I would always be bringing up that conversation with people, but then once I wasn’t in the church anymore, I was like, ‘Oh, I can just go do this now. I can do this for a job, as opposed to having to balance that with other people’s needs.’

Dan: It sounds like you were getting away from some of the structure that you didn’t fit with. But you were trying to go directly to people in need, like what Jesus would do.

Ryan: That’s definitely what motivated me initially, for sure, was the character I saw in the Gospels. For me, it didn’t line up nearly as much with what I was seeing in my church, and that isn’t to judge people, because I really like a lot of aspects of church culture. I grew up in it and I have really fond memories, and I think there’s something that’s really beautiful about that as well. But I think in terms of the Gospel, it was difficult for me to reconcile that, because that’s what I saw in the character of Jesus, like he’s going out into the streets, he’s hanging out with people that other people wouldn’t hang out with, and those people also seemed much more compelling.

And I think part of it, in some ways, is because those people just have so much a better understanding of their own humanity and their own ability to fail and make mistakes, and they get entrenched in some of the darker things of life. You can kind of see it in people’s eyes. They’ve been through it. They understand what that’s like.

And I just kind of felt like I saw those eternal realities playing out a lot more on the street. It was a lot more explicit, I guess, on the streets. You’re living day by day. You’re not necessarily sure where your next meal is coming from. You’re not really sure what tomorrow is going to look like. You’re having to trust in your community.

Dan: I think it’s fair to say we live in a cynical time where people question motives and don’t trust each other, or they put each other in camps. It’s like, ‘If you don’t have these political beliefs or these religious beliefs, you’re the enemy’, or whatever. It’s just very polarized in many ways. So having people take you at face value must not always come easily for you. Are there times when you see their guard is up around you? How do you overcome that?

Ryan: I’m just really honest about it. I’ve definitely had people go like, ‘Oh, you’re just here because you’re getting paid.’ Or, ‘You’re just here because it makes you feel good.’ And I would say yes to all those questions (laughs).

If someone really wanted to know the answer, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, there’s definitely a part of me that’s here because it’s a job and I need to pay the bills, there’s a part of me that’s here because being altruistic feels good, so I want to feel better about myself, that’s part of why I’m here. And there’s a part of me that’s here because I actually really give a f— about you, because I really care. I actually care what happens to you today and tomorrow.’

Dan: So, you work very hard to be authentic with everybody. But to really make a difference, it has to be two ways. They can’t just be telling you what you want to hear. So how do you get through that?

Ryan: I feel like most people who come in here just say what they think you want to hear. Or, if they’ve been raised in the system, what’s been the buzzwords that have gotten them through things? It’s like a spiel. It really is. There’s a real intelligence to it: what to say it, when to say it. I’m constantly amazed by it. And I credit that on some level, that ability to say what you need to say to get whatever service you need.

I think the beauty of a place like this, and some of the other places that I’ve worked at as well, is you get beyond that, hopefully. But you have to put in the time, and you have to show up in that relationship.

Dan: That makes a lot of sense. Like you said, people are complex and sometimes you think you know them and then they surprise you or let you down. And we all put on personas. The challenge too, though, is when you tell people you care and you want to help them, sometimes they’ll put demands on you that you can’t meet. How do you deal with that?

Ryan: For sure, I think that’s always going to be a thing. I think part of it sometimes is, ‘What have I done to create that expectation?’ And I know that I have at times. Like, I have accommodated here and accommodated here, and it’s not a huge leap for you to think that I’ll accommodate here as well, but that’s actually too far for me, or too far for The Doorway, or whatever.

The way I view it is that, if you’re trying to look at it as a human interaction as well, you’re hopefully not going to allow someone to take advantage of you or allow someone to be tyrannical.

If you’re actually going to help this person, you’re going to be like, ‘No, this can’t happen. I can’t do that for you. With all respect and all love, that can’t happen.’ And that’s actually, I think, much more difficult than just jumping through whatever hoop they need you to do.

Dan: You don’t have the same investment as with a friend. When you’re dealing with a friend, you don’t want to lose a friend. Whereas a counselor, or someone working here, can say, ‘If you don’t play by our rules,’ so to speak, ‘we can help other clients instead.’

Ryan: Yeah, I think so. You can look at what’s best for this person. ‘It’s not good for you to be able to go outside and do that drug deal in front of here. You can do it wherever you want, but it’s not good for either one of us if that’s the case, for a number of different reasons. If you’re being rude to people in this space, that’s not good for either one of us, for a variety of different reasons.’ You can be more invested in what’s best for that person.

Dan: If you’re consistent and treat everyone the same, then they see the fairness of it. They may resent it in the moment, but they respect it in the long term.

Ryan: It’s so healthy for all parties involved and not always something I feel like people in the street culture encounter too much. So, I think it’s really important.

Dan: When you were studying youth ministry at Ambrose University, did you have a vision that you always wanted to work with organizations that help people?

Ryan: Yeah, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything that wasn’t involving people and being of service to people in my community in some way.

The Doorway, in my opinion, is one of the last places that kind of reflects my personal ideologies. And I don’t know if that’s super present with most places that are in this kind of work.

It’s super important to me that everybody who comes in here feels seen and feels humanized, that they’re not a tick of the box or something. I’m happy they’re here and I want to treat them the way I would want to be treated. I wouldn’t want to be condescended to, I wouldn’t want to be treated as less than, I wouldn’t want to be treated as a commodity.

Dan: I wonder if government is inherently incapable of addressing all the issues that lead to homelessness. They can allocate resources, they can build apartments or provide incentives so that other people can do it, and whatever. But the actual one-on-one work, in terms of determining the needs of people: What specifically does this individual need at this time? I think it’s organizations like The Doorway and others that are best suited to do that.

Ryan: I agree with that.

Dan: Because governments can be like, ‘Fill out this form and then this goes to someone else and someone else. In two months, something will happen.’ But two months could be a lifetime in terms of what this person’s needs are.

Ryan Yeah, it’s almost purposefully inefficient. You see that with people wanting to get into treatment where they’re like, ‘I would go to treatment tomorrow, but there’s like a three-month waiting list.’

That is the beauty of places like The Doorway in some ways, in that you can’t solve the larger issues, but you can solve the clothes and the food and stuff like that. Some of the basic needs, some of those connection pieces. There are things we can do in real time to help somebody today, which is like really, really cool, but there are still limits. At some point you still have to reckon with the system.

Dan: With all the young people you’ve seen that have ended up on the street, is there one main, or certain common factors, that make them go on the street? And is it intrinsic to them or something that happened to them?

Ryan: It’s both, I guess, because most of those things that are now intrinsic are because of the things that happened to them. You know, because of trauma on some level. So, it would be a bit of both. But in terms of what informs it, a lot of the time, if we went super deep, it would be trauma and society.

I guess the short answer would be mental health, and it manifesting itself in addiction.

Dan: So, if you knew nothing about somebody, but you saw a young person on the street, sleeping rough there, what would you most likely suspect about them? What would you likely learn if you spoke to them? Would it be that they dealt with some form of abuse in the past, and they coped with it through substance abuse?

Ryan: It would certainly be something along those lines. The trauma and the addiction and not really having the same life after the addiction.

There seems to be a real throughline between the kind of person that they were before they started doing drugs and the person that they are now, which is someone who, their life just revolves around that, essentially.

That would be the thing: childhood trauma, and then I tried this [substance], and that was pretty much it.

Dan: Right. And then they lose their support systems because they’re stealing to get money for the drugs. They’re lying to people, they’re betraying family and friends and everyone. Their family disowns them because…

Ryan: Or their family is a big part of their addiction.

Dan: Or their family has their own issues.

Ryan: Yeah, totally. Like, their mom drinks more than they do.

Dan: I guess if you work in any area of social work with vulnerable people you’re going to deal with times when you lose people to addiction or they get knifed because they’re in a bad spot or they commit suicide. How do you cope with that? Because you’re a caring person and you’re getting to know people, but you also know that you have no control once they’re away from here and that you can lose them.

Ryan: I think for me and it’s really important that I recognize that I’m not responsible for what anyone does.

And I don’t exactly know how to explain that paradox exactly, but I really do view it as something where it’s super important that I’m here, but then also like it doesn’t matter, I’m not the answer. I am far from the answer. You know, I’m another flawed human being dealing with my own stuff. I don’t shoulder that responsibility for what that person ends up becoming and what choices they make. 

Dan: It’s funny to hear you talk about not taking on that responsibility, because I’ve worked with plenty of people who only think about, ‘How am I going to move ahead in my job to get a bigger salary so I can buy a nicer house or a bigger whatever?’ And they don’t think about the problems in society, or at least they try not to. They’re not thinking about the dark side of society or the people who are suffering. So, for you to talk about not taking responsibility for others when the very nature of your role is about taking responsibility for others. So, what separates you from those people who are just concerned about their salary and getting a big house and having a certain image of success that’s all material? What makes you the weirdo?

Ryan: Yeah, well, there’s no doubt about that (laughs). Well, I still think I’m super privy to a lot of those narratives. I think everybody is. I definitely feel like I have plenty of moments where I’m like, how am I perceived? I think that’s just always going to be a part of it.

Probably my background has a lot to do with that. I’ve just always thought about the world in a way that is beyond what we can kind of perceive right now, what’s in front of us.

There’s always going to be that part where I feel like, I’m not sure what it is, but I think there’s something bigger than myself. I think there are forces of good, forces of evil. And I feel like the evil is pretty obvious, probably, to most of us.

We feel like something isn’t really right. And if you drive through downtown, you’re like, okay, there’s something amiss here. And so I just want to be on the side of good, whatever that is.

Dan: So, you’re living consistently with your conscience.

Ryan: Hoping to.

Dan: Trying to stay away from the bad. And focusing on the good. As much as possible.

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s just more for my benefit. It’s not to win any awards or anything. It’s what I need.

Dan: For your peace of mind.

Ryan: Totally. I would really struggle to not do that. I would just feel inauthentic at this point.

But that’s why it’s really important for me to be honest in that process, too, and kind of be like, yeah, sometimes I do want to just get a higher paying job, or sometimes I don’t want to talk to people. Or sometimes I have narratives towards our clientele that would reflect narratives I don’t like. I have plenty of those days as well.

Dan: How would you hope that participants describe you? What would you like to think they say about you?

Ryan: I would hope that they view me as real. Very real. And I would hope that they feel seen and appreciated by me. But, also, that I’m able to be honest with them. Someone that sees them, someone who appreciates them, and someone who can be real with them.


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