Cenovus Energy recognized for decade-long investment supporting vulnerable youth

Young Calgarian envisions bright future thanks to mentorship program funded by oil sands producer

By Deborah Jaremko
Nineteen-year-old Lucy Smith is looking forward to the future thanks in part to the Cenovus Energy-funded In The Lead program. Photograph supplied for Canadian Energy Centre

Lucy Smith has a bright outlook for the future. The 2019 high school grad currently works in marketing and social media in Calgary and has applied to attend college in Victoria, B.C., with hopes to commence in the winter 2021 semester.

Today the 19-year-old is outgoing and ready to embrace challenge and change, but admits that just a few years ago this was not the case.

Struggling with chronic pain, fatigue and mental health stress, Smith says it was difficult to meet the expectations of attending a regular high school. A move into a flexible program offered by the Calgary Board of Education was next, but that was also challenging. Smith stopped attending classes in person and moved to working online, at risk of the path of dropping out.

That’s when, thanks to a nomination by Discovering Choices staff, Smith got involved in a unique program offered by the Calgary Youth Justice Society (CfYJS) called In the Lead.

The program was co-founded in 2010 with major oil sands producer Cenovus Energy. It’s based on a concept CYJS calls “strong not wrong,” which recognizes that the same traits that can be seen as weakness in youth can be flipped to be used as strengths.

“I think it made me a lot more outgoing. It’s taught me a lot about myself, about the definition of leadership and how that can change from person to person,” says Smith, who identifies as non-binary.

“In the last few years I’ve grown so much and moved forward farther than I thought I’d be able to, and I know that I didn’t do it alone.”

CYJS was established in 1998 to provide a community-based alternative to court for young people involved in the justice system. But not all vulnerable youth are involved in the criminal justice system, which is why CYJS executive director Denise Blair saw the need and opportunity to create In the Lead.

Volunteer coaching

The program is offered to students in semester-long engagements where successful completion can earn them three high school credits. Each cohort is a peer group of 6 to 10 people who do course work together and are each matched with an adult coach volunteer.

Smith’s coach for two semesters was Lisa Howells, who leads Cenovus Energy’s meetings and events teams. In addition to in-classroom time with the cohort group, she would meet up casually with Smith for movies or brunch and generally text and keep in contact.

“It was really cool meeting Lisa. I don’t think I’d ever had, just like an adult that I could talk to like a friend at the time,” Smith says.

Howells, 37, says she was blown away by Smith and the youth she has met through In the Lead over the three semesters she has acted as a coach.

“I would say being a part of that program and specifically with Lucy, it totally changed my outlook, and I would say Lucy totally changed my life,” she says. “I mean, they just brought so much joy and excitement and I just feel better for being in the program and for knowing my young leader.”

More than 400 Cenovus employees have participated as volunteer coaches with In the Lead since 2010, when the company co-founded the program with Blair and CYJS. This August Cenovus was recognized nationally for this work as business leader for the prairies region in Canada’s Volunteer Awards.

The award recognized the impact of the company’s overall volunteer program, including its long-standing involvement with In the Lead.

In addition to employees volunteering on work time, the company has invested over $2 million in the program over the last decade to develop, launch, deliver and scale the program.

Cenovus senior community programs advisor Megan Marshall says In the Lead fits with the company’s overall approach to community investment, which is “to be both invested and involved.”

Oil and gas volunteering and giving back

Cenovus is not alone as a Canadian oil and gas producer giving back in big ways and seeking opportunities to create new programs to help communities.

According to BMO Capital Markets, oil sands producers alone have injected more than $80 million per year on average since 2012 in support of community resilience programs, education/skills development, as well as Indigenous and youth engagement.

Oil sands heavyweight Suncor Energy says that part of its community investment strategy is to “co-create innovative solutions” for shared challenges and opportunities.

Community investment and volunteering is also important to smaller Canadian oil and gas producers.

In 2019 employees of mid-sized Seven Generations Energy volunteered more than 10,000 hours in communities where the company operates. Seven Generations and its partners have also raised more than $3 million over the last seven years to support health care and education for people in northwest Alberta and northeast B.C.