The Elsipogtog Youth Center is considered a safe space by community members

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For Phoenix Augustine, the Elsipogtog Youth Center was her “saving grace” growing up.

The center burned down early Thursday, RCMP say, and the blaze is considered suspicious.

Augustine said the center was a judgment-free place.

“No matter what kind of day you were having, good or bad, you could always count on the people there to smile at you and say, ‘How are you?’ And how is your day going?’ “, said Augustine.

Augustine is from St. Mary’s First Nation, where she currently lives.

But from age 12 to 18, she lived in Elsipogtog, where her father’s family is from. Augustine spent some time in the foster care system and she said one thing that always stuck with her was how much the youth center cared.

Phoenix Augustine said she will go to the youth center at least once a week when she grows up. (Pierre Fournier/Radio Canada)

She said she goes there at least once a week to draw or hang out with friends and often attends one of their summer camps.

Augustine said her heart sank when she read about a fire in Elsipogtog on social media. She said questions went through her mind when she realized it was at the youth center.

“How are we going to rebuild? How are we going to fix this? What’s going to happen now? Are we even going to have another youth center?”

She said the kids who have gone to the center are at “really impactful ages”. She said it could be an escape from drugs in the community or a place where single parents can send their children if they need a bit of a break.

Augustine, of St. Mary’s First Nation, said the youth center was a non-judgmental place. She lived in Elsipogtog from age 12 to 18 and visited the center often. (Submitted by Phoenix Augustine)

Heidi Simon of Elsipogtog said she also found out about the fire on social media. She saw a photo of the youth center with no roof and no walls.

She said it was shocking. She immediately sent the photo to her son, Talon Simon.

“You don’t even understand why things like this happen,” she said. “It’s really difficult.”

Talon Simon said he would like to be part of fundraising efforts to rebuild the youth center. (Submitted by Talon Simon)

Talon Simon said “it was kind of amazing” when he saw the photo. In September, Talon and Heidi spent time raising money for the center with a sale of orange shirts for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation through Talon’s company, Rez Famous Brand.

Talon designed a shirt with a Mi’kmaq hieroglyph of children holding hands in a circle.

“I always want to see if I can give back,” Talon said. “Seeing the youth center was like a perfect place to give back because I know how much they do for youth activities.”

They raised $8,150. Heidi said the presentation check was even displayed inside the center.

Talon said he would like to participate in any fundraising for the center in the future,

Jonah Simon, Heidi’s first cousin, also had a direct relationship with the youth center.

The top of a roofless house.  There is a large window but most of the glass has disappeared.
Heidi Simon of Elsipogtog First Nation said she discovered the fire on social media. (Pierre Fournier/Radio Canada)

He worked there in 2008 at their summer camp after graduating from high school. From 2018 to 2020, he worked there every summer as part of a program called Access Open Minds.

He returned to the program, which was renamed Access Elsipogtog, this summer.

Jonah said he worked with at-risk youth while there. He said it was a place where they could relax, feel safe and talk about what was on their minds.

He said the center was important for young people, but also for the wider community. Jonah said he hosts events and is often the venue for parades, such as the Pride Parade in recent years.

“I hope it will be rebuilt right away,” he said. “It was very important for children and young people to have this space.”

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