They are thrust into the role of caregivers at a time when their biggest worries should be dating and acne.
Youth who care for grandparents with dementia, siblings with autism or parents with mental health issues.
“I used to feel nobody else was going through the same thing,” said 15-year-old Melissa Ruffolo of Niagara Falls, who cares for her mother with bipolar disorder. She now sits on the youth advisory board of the St. Catharines-based Powerhouse Project, an organization that provides support to young carers under 18.
“I guess I’m happier because of them. I’m not alone,” she said.
Over 300 kids in Niagara are registered with the Powerhouse Project, part of the Young Carers Initiative. The group was being honoured with a Caregivers Recognition Award Thursday night at Club Roma by the Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant Community Care Access Centre.
The access centre, which connects people to support services, recognized 49 Niagara residents Thursday who take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities at home. They are adults with aging parents, spouses with partners who have fallen ill and even teenagers caring for parents or siblings.
“They’re unsung heroes many times,” said Melody Miles, Chief Executive Officer of the access centre. “This is just a way to say, ‘You make a difference.’”
Often under the radar, many caregivers were nominated by support staff going into homes who noticed family, friends or neighbours making sacrifices. Many of those residents don’t have the benefit of a caregiving community.
It was the third year “Heroes in the Home” were recognized by the access centre.
“These are folks who are not paid,” Miles said. “They do it because they love who they do it for.”
For Ruffalo, who lives with her mother, joining Powerhouse Project last year allowed her to connect with other youth going through similar situations. She takes part planning events and has been able to help others who thought they were alone.
“At first I was shy but it did help me it he long run,” she said.
One Canadian study found 12% of youth between 12 and 17 consider themselves a caregiver.
“They’re the silent population,” said Michelle Lewis, executive director of Powerhouse Project. Lewis said no one at school can relate to them but in the program there is some normality. It provides respite and helps kids manage feelings of stress, isolation and self-esteem.
The average age of Niagara children in the program is eight to 12.
“They’re beyond their years in age. They have to grow up quickly,” she said. “Their families are under a lot of stress above and beyond normal life.”
Those youth and adult caregivers honoured Thursday were from across the region and were given a pin to recognize their efforts.