Young woman overcomes learning disability to win new award

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016 7:29pm


Image Caption

Emily Johansen (second from left) with father Cory, sister Katrina, and mother Shannon.


“Never give up and always push forward… have hope for yourself.” ~Emily Johansen, Youth SAIYA recipient in the Hope category.

By Shari Narine
Windspeaker Contributor

Hope is something Emily Johansen had a hard time feeling. Now, not only is hope something she lives with, it was recently acknowledged with a Southern Alberta Indigenous Youth Award (SAIYA). Johansen received a plaque, a necklace engraved by an Elder and a carved Inukshuk.

“It makes me happy that I did win this award for going through all the challenges I went through in life,” said the 15-year-old Métis girl, who was recognized in the category of Hope. “It inspires me to do more.”

Johansen is one of 12 Indigenous youth between the ages of 13 and 21, living from Calgary south to the United States border, to receive the first ever SAIYA.

The SAIYAs were created by Michelle Thrush, Patty Fraser and Karen English. Fraser said they were inspired by the good work that was undertaken in northwestern Alberta where the Spirit Seeker awards was handed out to young people at an annual conference in Grande Prairie. Thrush emceed the event and the actor wanted to do something similar in the south.

“The kids who won the awards, many of them are not recognized for the small things they do, the things that are being done to help further their goals or their future,” said Fraser.

Along with the category of Hope, Indigenous youth were recognized in the areas of Community Leadership, Volunteerism, Sports, Contemporary Arts, Traditional Arts, Visionary, Aspire, Shine, and Academic Achievement.

No one this year was chosen for the twelfth category, Entrepreneur.

Youth were selected by a panel of seven Elders in Treaty 7 and the Métis Nation. About 50 youth were nominated by a wide variety of people and organizations.

Fraser said foster families and organizations in the south were contacted and made aware of the awards.

“We didn’t want to leave any of the youth out,” she said. “Next year we’re geared up to find more.”

Johansen was nominated by four teachers. It’s a fitting nomination considering Johansen lost hope with her education in her early years.

Not finding she was getting enough support in the school setting, Johansen’s learning slipped. She started homeschooling in Grade 4. Her math skills were still at a Grade 2 level because she has a learning disability. But now, five years later, she is in Grade 9 and learning at a Grade 9 level.

Johansen credits parents Shannon and Cory with helping her along. She said she had difficulty at first accepting that she had a learning disability.

“My mom and dad always showed me that never give up and always push forward and to have hope for yourself,” she said.

Having her Math, Social Studies, English and Physical Education teachers nominate her is special.

“It makes me feel really good,” she said. “They helped me through my school and showed me that I can do school.”

Johansen does her schooling online and includes a weekly session through Blackboard. She is enrolled in the Calgary Board of Education e-learning program.

Through CBe-learn, Johansen gets choice and flexibility in her learning in core academic and elective courses. Johansen lists black and white photography, oil painting and playing the piano among her interests.

It’s youth like Johansen that SAIYAwards are for, said Fraser.

“What we hope to accomplish is that more non-Indigenous people are going to learn what the struggles are of our youth to reach their goals,” she said, noting that some Indigenous children face trauma, both in their families and on their reserves.

“It’s to help get these kids out and recognized and help them to start on a brighter future.”

Fraser said it’s important that the event gets support from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations. She noted that people were excited about the awards.

SAIYAward recipients each received $1,000 and will serve as youth ambassadors, speaking at three events during 2017 about how they will be spending their money, what winning the award means to them and the difference the award will make in their lives.

“Having this (award) inspires me to push myself further in school and to show others who have learning disabilities to accept it,” said Johansen. “I just want to show other people that it’s okay that you have a learning disability.”