Spotlight on our members for Community Social Services Month

We were delighted at the opportunity to see the work of our member organizations profiled by the BC government for Community Social Services Month in March 2021.

Eleven of the 12 agency profiles posted here were shared via the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction website. This government initiative provided us with the chance to profile our vital organizations and services and to attract the attention of the public and the media to our important work. So inspiring to learn even more about our sector’s incredible innovation and adaptability, most especially in a pandemic!

Board Voice Executive Director Jody Paterson wrote the pieces in collaboration with each agency featured. Thank you to each of the agencies that participated and shared stories and photos of their essential work.

Here are the agencies featured. Click on the name of the organization to be taken to that agency’s profile. We hope you enjoy learning more about their great work!

Getting together over lunch with new friends was a popular program for Seniors Come Share until a global pandemic brought it to a temporary halt.

Fortunately, the Lower Mainland non-profit did a quick pivot and invented a virtual lunch gathering, complete with cooking lesson and a meal delivered to participants’ doors.

“Digital literacy is one of the opportunities that COVID-19 brought us,” said Louise Tremblay, executive director, Seniors Come Share. “It’s an additional way to reach people and gives people the opportunity to connect rather than self-isolate.”

A number of the older adults, who the Surrey-based non-profit organization has served for 43 years, are not as familiar with technology as are the younger generations who have grown up with it. Seniors Come Share uses “tech buddy” initiatives to help its clients cross that gap.

One past program with that aim involved seniors giving a cooking lesson, younger guests giving a tech lesson and everybody enjoying a meal together. Tech buddies, who are part of volunteer programs at Seniors Come Share, have continued to be in demand during the pandemic. Tremblay says this is no surprise, given that so many services have had no choice but to go virtual.

Even before COVID-19, the society offered a program called Seniors Centre Without Walls. The small-group gathering via teleconference features a mix of trivia, storytelling, music, health information and socializing. Seniors Come Share runs the popular teleconference 50 times a month.

“I’m really impressed how the society has been able to adapt its services to reduce social isolation and ensure those vital human-to-human connections continue throughout the pandemic,” said Nicholas Simons, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. “Seniors Come Share is just one of over 2,000 community social services agencies that provide vital services.”

Not everything can go virtual. Many of the 500 seniors and their families that Seniors Come Share serves in a typical month have felt the loss of the day programs that were provided at its three locations in Surrey and White Rock. Those programs served about 75 people a day.

“Helping seniors with diverse needs – from navigating the system to help with advanced planning – used to happen at Surrey recreation centres, but now has had to go online. That’s just how it must be for now,” Tremblay said.

She and her staff see the effect of social isolation on their clients during the pandemic. “We have observed people’s health decline, people getting thin and their cognition declining,” Tremblay said. “The impact of isolation is so critical in health, especially for older people. Having interactions with us at Seniors Come Share is how they socialize, and it’s been very, very difficult for them to not have that in person.”

Like all B.C. non-profit organizations providing community social services, Seniors Come Share relies on diverse sources to fund its work. The Fraser Health Authority, community foundations, the City of Surrey and annual gaming grants are all key funders. Better At Home, a provincial program funded by the B.C. government and administered by the United Way, supports Seniors Come Share and other community organizations to provide diverse in-home supports to older adults so they can continue to live independently.

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the hard work of the over 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

Intersect Youth and Family Services

Most months, the number of Prince George children and youth needing support from Intersect Youth and Family Services ticks along at around 15 to 20 new intakes a month.

Things stayed at that level through 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic settled in.

Then in January 2021, intakes tripled to 45 and demand has stayed high. Intersect executive director Shannon Croy noted the common feelings of weariness, frustration, isolation and disappointment people around the world are trying to manage are clearly being felt by young people as well.

“I think people are really getting burned out,” Croy said. “They’re not OK.”

Founded in 1984, Intersect serves approximately 500 children and youth a year through a mix of mental health services, supports for youth in the justice system and a partnership with the Prince George school district that provides an alternative Grade 8-12 school with extra mental health supports in the Intersect building.

The pandemic has caused much stress to community social service organizations as well, as agencies struggled to rapidly reshape vital human services to meet pandemic measures. Intersect is proud to have kept its services going throughout the pandemic, Croy said.

“We never closed down. We continued to operate – safely, but never closed,” she said. “The biggest thing I’ve seen in this past year is just how adaptable people are. Our team knows how important our services are. Mental health services are health care – there’s no option to say, ‘we’re done,’ or to close down for a while. We know our kids need us now more than ever.”

The majority of B.C.’s Child and Youth Mental Health services are provided directly by the Ministry of Children and Family Development at its own community branches. But the ministry does contract in some communities with providers, including Intersect, which holds the largest non-ministry contract for mental health services for children and youth in the province. Intersect provides mental health assessments and treatment options for children and youth up to age 18 through that contract.

“Children, youth and their families have faced incredible challenges over the past year as they’ve been asked to change their routines, cancel their activities and remain flexible and vigilant in an environment that is constantly changing,” said Mitzi Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development. “Now, more than ever, it’s vital to break down barriers – like Intersect is doing – and work together to better support those who are struggling.”

The ministry also funds Intersect’s New Directions service, which is part of the Youth Justice Program. The outreach and support services connect with youth who have active probation orders to help them set and achieve goals in whatever way works for the youth. That can be counselling or something less formal, like providing healthy social interactions by taking a youth out for a game of pool.

Intersect is also one of the partners in the Prince George Foundry, which opened in 2017. Foundry is a network of youth centres and online supports throughout B.C. that removes barriers and increases access to health and wellness services for young people ages 12-24 and their caregivers. Foundry offers integrated mental health care, substance use services, primary and sexual health care, youth and family peer support, and social services.

The pandemic forced a shift to more virtual services and different ways of delivering support. Having virtual services has turned out well for some of Intersect’s young clients, Croy noted, though the most social ones have had a difficult time.

“The kids are so individual, but some have really flourished with less pressure to show up places, a break from having to be in class,” she said. “Others are very social and struggling.”

That latter group of young people will be glad for a time when more face-to-face services can return, she adds. But virtual services will also continue now that Intersect has seen how well they work for some of the people the organization serves.

“I’ve always wanted to add in provision of virtual services here,” Croy said. “Well, now that we’ve got it figured out, we’ll do great at it and we’ll keep it going. It has some big benefits for our clients.”

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the hard work of the more than 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

Northern Environmental Action Team

Photo: NEAT Northern Co-Hort program in action

Thirty years ago, “the world’s most frustrated recyclers” founded the Northern Environmental Action Team (NEAT) to help the people of Fort St. John figure out how to keep more of their household waste out of the landfill.

Modern-day NEAT no longer has to play that role, as the regional district took that work in 2017 following development of the region’s first solid-waste plan. But NEAT’s neat work carries on in new ways now that the community non-profit has been freed up to turn its attention to all the other passion projects that it had going on the side – most especially around food security.

“A key priority for government is making sure British Columbians have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food,” said Nicholas Simons, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. “NEAT is working hard to heighten awareness in communities about the importance of food security, while connecting people to healthy and sustainable food sources.”

Food security is a critical need in addressing poverty, notes Karen Mason-Bennett, executive director, NEAT. NEAT partners with the Salvation Army in Fort St. John to divert surplus foods that would otherwise be headed for the landfill, getting them into people’s households instead. But food security is also an economic issue in the region. Grain crops thrive in the area – the region produces 90% of the canola grown in B.C. – but are under threat, as climate change brings more rainfall.

NEAT’s Northern Co-Hort (Collaborative Horticulture) program is bringing producers and other community members together to further develop permaculture farming around the vast region and test the viability of commercial vegetable production, which Mason-Bennett said “is not economically to scale” in the region.

Selling at the region’s farmers markets is one thing, she noted, but serving a grocery store, school system or hospital is another thing entirely.

“How do these producers get credit? How do we make this economically viable? What does the soil look like in each of our micro climates around the region, and what will grow best there? These are all things we’re exploring. We’re trying to develop the business case, and look at things like transportation infrastructure and economies of scale.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for community social service agencies to introduce virtual services. In February, NEAT debuted its first virtual conference for kids, Energy Explorers, which brought together 500 students from grades 5 to 8 to learn from experts on all sides of the energy issue. That’s a hot topic around Fort St. John, where the Site C dam project has just been given the green light and municipal government is committed to green energy solutions.

During spring break and summer holidays, NEAT offers Camp Wildlings, a popular outdoor “kid-led” camp attended by 300 or so young people a year from kindergarten to Grade 6. The children go fishing, wander the woods, build base camps, pick edible berries, spot animals and learn to appreciate and connect to the environment along the way.

“We see kids transform in those camps,” Mason-Bennett said. “We’ve had parents tell us they wish their kids’ teachers could see them at those camps, because the kids feel that responsibility and relationship when they enter this space.”

The Job Creation Partnership (JCP) project funded by the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has been integral in helping NEAT pivot from a recycling organization to the multi-service agency it is today, she said.

Funding through four JCPs has enabled NEAT to hire people for a period of work experience and set them to the task of feeling out a new program area or strengthening an existing one. The work of putting up 5,000 jars of jam last year for the Salvation Army food bank wouldn’t have been possible without a JCP, Mason-Bennett noted. The Northern Co-Hort program also got its start as a JCP initiative.

“That funding has allowed us to hire people to get our feet under us in a new project, to look at the reality versus the dream,” she said. “From there, we can develop a plan to find grants to sustain the work.”

What’s the dream for the organization? “A healthy, vibrant, connected community making positive, sustainable decisions. We like to talk about building a NEAT future!”

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the 42,000-plus people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

BC Association of Community Response Networks

Smithers area Indigenous communities reconnect with ancestral healing practices through Magical Backyard Medicines, funded by the BCCRN

Following the creation and introduction of the Adult Guardianship Act in 1993, the B.C. Association of Community Response Networks (BCCRN) was piloted with five networks.

The organization has grown into 81 community response networks (CRN) serving 233 communities throughout the province, carrying out a range of grassroots projects and public awareness campaigns addressing everything from adult abuse to trans phobia.

“The brilliance of the CRN model is each local network is free to target its work toward whatever is most needed in its own community,” said Sherry Baker, executive director, BCCRN. “It’s amazing how creative the projects are.”

Each CRN can access up to $3,000 a year for projects, all of which are personally vetted and approved by Baker.

In the Agassiz-Harrison area, there’s the Seniors Connect Café, which brought isolated seniors in to socialize with others, along with a free beverage. In Kamloops, the Intergenerational Mother Goose Program brought together adults and children over books, reading and storytelling.

Ladysmith’s Day of Service provided eye exams, haircuts and flu vaccination to seniors living at risk of homelessness. CRNs in B.C.’s Northwest – Smithers, Hazelton and Houston – launched Magical Backyard Medicines, a program that helps Indigenous communities reconnect with ancestral healing practices and share this knowledge with interested non-Indigenous members.

“This is grassroots work. You’re reaching out to the health centres, the pharmacies, the places where vulnerable people receive services,” Baker said. “It’s the CRNs who know what needs to be provided in their communities. The function of our provincial body is to provide mentors, materials and funds for that work.”

The CRNs aren’t diverse only in the kind of projects they select, they’re diverse in their makeup.

In addition to Indigenous and First Nations CRNs – including one in the Hazelton region formed by five First Nations – there are Chinese-language CRNs, francophone CRNs and plans for a new Punjabi-language group. Some CRNs focus their work on 2SLGBTQ+ populations, where the vulnerability of older adults in long-term care is a growing concern.

“That is a major issue, especially for people who are transitioning gender or have been living as one gender but whose bodies present as a different gender to the facility staff now caring for them,” Baker said. “What seems to be happening in many such cases is people are feeling like they have to go back into the closet. There’s a ton of work to be done on that issue.”

The BCCRN raises awareness across the spectrum of abuses – physical, emotional and financial. “It’s that last one most common for vulnerable older adults to experience,” Baker said. “Whether it’s an email scammer closing in on a potential victim or an adult child taking money from their fixed-income parent, people interacting with vulnerable adults need to know how to spot such abuses and act.

“The BCCRN seeks opportunities to work with some of the big long-term care providers to ‘train the trainer’ in how to spot abuse in their facilities, which can emerge between the family caregiver and the patient, patient to patient, or between the care provider and the patient. This past year has seen many pandemic-related projects, as isolation is a major concern for vulnerable adults. When a CRN is preparing lunch or delivering food, our abuse and neglect informational materials are packed in there along with the meal.

“CRNs are also helping community members learn how to use technology to connect, as many programs and events have shifted to an online format for safety. It’s great to see our CRNs so nimble in addressing needs in their communities.”

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the more than 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

AiMHi – Prince George Association for Community Living

AiMHi’s new homes opened in March

Opening a new housing complex in a global pandemic wasn’t part of the plan when AiMHi – the Prince George Association for Community Living – finally settled on what to do with a piece of property it had owned for many years.

However, it was a big concern at AiMHi that people with developmental disabilities were starting to show up in the region’s homeless population in recent years. The preparatory work for the housing project had all been done by the time COVID-19 struck, and 2020 had already been settled on as a good year to make it happen.

The non-profit organization went ahead with building five small homes to add to AiMHi’s diverse housing services. “And now, there are some very excited people moving into those homes this month,” said Melinda Heidsma, executive director, AiMHi.

AiMHi is one of B.C.’s largest providers of “community living” services. In B.C., these date back more than 60 years to a major shift in thinking around how best to support people with developmental disabilities. Big B.C. institutions like Woodlands and Tranquille, where people once had to live far from their families and home communities, were phased out, replaced by a new community-based system of support.

“People deserve to have safe, secure homes, and AiMHi’s new housing complex provides security for people with developmental disabilities and their families during these challenging times,” said Dan Coulter, Parliamentary Secretary for Accessibility. “The services and support AiMHi continues to deliver are a reflection of the organization’s deep commitment to the community it serves.”

Housing is a key part of that support. At AiMHi, housing options span the range of 24-hour staffed homes to independent living, but more is always needed.

“I think we’ll be doing do a lot more in housing in the future,” Heidsma said. “Five years ago, you never saw people in the community-living sector becoming homeless, with no place to go but a shelter. That’s something that simply can’t be allowed to happen for people with developmental disabilities.”

AiMHi supports 100 people in staffed homes, 150 who live on their own or with family members, a dozen who live in a cluster of supported apartments and 50 home shares. Home shares are a newer model in which people in the community share their homes and lives with people matched to them.

Home share providers often found themselves having to step up that level of support during the pandemic, Heidsma noted. Many of their tenants suddenly found themselves out of work or shut out of their day programs due to provincial social-distancing requirements.

“It has been a challenging year for sure, but many good things have happened, too,” Heidsma said. “There has been a tremendous amount of support in the community – lots of iPads donated for the people we serve so they can get into Zoom learning and crafts, grants to support people with food baskets. It’s been pretty magnificent to watch, really.”

AiMHi has 480 employees and is primarily funded by Community Living BC, with additional support from BC Housing and the Ministry of Children and Family Development. But community support across all programs is so important, Heidsma said. That could be via donations, volunteering at events or just helping to create an inclusive and welcoming community.

Heidsma is particularly proud AiMHi was able to go ahead with plans to get its WorkSafeBC Certificate of Recognition (COR) in spite of the pandemic, after WorkSafe agreed to do most of the certification virtually.

She said there aren’t many other community social service agencies in B.C. that have received COR certification. COR is a voluntary program helping employers create an occupational health and management system that goes beyond legal requirements.

“There’s never a bad time to emphasize health and safety,” Heidsma said. “WorkSafeBC was pretty excited as well to see that the certification can be done virtually.”

One of the big surprises from the year of COVID-19 now has AiMHi weighing whether to adopt some pandemic measures permanently.

“At the beginning, it was a shock and a struggle, and people were up against each other trying to get safety supplies,” Heidsma said. “But one of the things we’ve learned a year on is that hardly anyone we serve in our homes has been sick this winter. We’re very tempted to look at leaving masks and the sanitizing routines in place. It kept people healthy!”

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the more than 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

PLEA Community Services

Fresh plant growing out of concrete

One size most definitely does not fit all in providing community social services, and a non-profit serving some of B.C.’s most complex citizens is a clear example of that.

PLEA Community Social Services develops an individual care plan for every one of the 1,200 people referred for its services every year.

“Some of those people are youth and need a plan that looks a lot like parenting,” said Jen Graham, communications and development manager, PLEA Community Social Services. “Others have brain injuries or disabilities and need plans that look more like health care. Others need a little – or a lot of – help on any number of fronts: housing, family support, life skills, school or work, addictions.

“We’re trying to provide the care a person needs to stay stable,” said Graham. “Our goal is to give them the foundation to a good life, whatever that looks like for them – helping them take care of their basic needs, stabilizing their relationships, figuring out school and work if that’s possible, and even a nutritional plan. We’re addressing whatever it is people need in the different domains of their lives and supporting them to work out where they want to be going.”

PLEA got its start in 1979 when a retired B.C. probation officer, the late Bernie Agg, took action on his long-standing experiences of seeing youth cycling through endless problems with the law. Agg believed relationships were the key to breaking the cycle. The non-profit organization he founded became one of the first in Canada to offer young people community-based programs as an alternative to custody.

Graham said: “PLEA is based on four beliefs: The power of relationship; everyone has the right to make choices about what happens to them; the idea of focusing on people’s strengths rather than their deficits; and keeping programs realistic. I’ve worked here seven years now and know that this organization truly lives its beliefs.”

PLEA provides public and gated services. The latter are highly customized, delivered to about 1,200 people a year and available only through referral. Most referrals are from probation officers and social workers in B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

PLEA’s public services, focused on prevention, reach tens of thousands of other British Columbians, including some 25,000 students who take part in PLEA’s Children of the Street school presentations about sexual exploitation and about 130 children in KidStart who are supported by volunteer mentors.

“With a network of more than 160 caregivers, PLEA manages home shares for people with developmental disabilities living in their own apartment in a family-style environment, and other homes where care is round-the-clock but still very much about creating family,” Graham said. “Doing even more around housing is a goal for PLEA.

“We’d love to have the full spectrum of housing. Right now, we’re working on youth transitioning from their family home to independence by moving into an independent suite in the house. Then we’ll need other housing to move them into when they’re ready for full independence – an apartment block, perhaps, maybe with some services downstairs.”

PLEA’s gated programs have carried on uninterrupted by the pandemic, albeit with necessary adaptations to meet new health requirements.

“One of the most challenging aspects is finding things to do in the community for the people we serve,” Graham said. “Maintaining connections is a particular challenge for clients from the Northwest Territories, far from home, referred to B.C. to receive PLEA services, which do not yet exist in the Northwest Territories. In non-pandemic times, going home for a visit is an option, but virtual calls and newspapers sent from home regions have had to suffice during the past year.”

The B.C. government has proclaimed March as Community Social Services Awareness Month in appreciation of the more than 42,000 people who work in the community social services sector. They provide help and assistance to those who need it most.

Ooknakane Friendship Centre

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of freshly baked blueberry muffins to take people’s stress levels down a few notches, says Ooknakane Friendship Centre Executive Director Matthew Baran.

So when the Penticton-area agency hosted the first COVID-19 vaccination clinic to be held at a B.C. friendship centre, staff made sure to add muffin-making to their work plans for that day.

Almost 200 people attended the one-day clinic March 10, which Ooknakane pulled together in 24 hours after Interior Health Authority took Ooknakane’s invitation to host a vaccination clinic for Indigenous people. “We’d been collaborating already with the health authority, so it was a very natural progression,” says Baran.

Ooknakane’s 12 staff sprang into action. They organized the work space to make room for visiting nurses, figured out a transport schedule to get isolated Elders to and from the centre, and identified a space where people could wait comfortably and safely for the required 15 minutes after their vaccination – and eat a muffin. Food is part of everything the centre does, says Baran.

“We did what we always do at the centre, which is look after people,” he says. “In any Indigenous community, people honestly care about you – and care for you. You’re walking into the hands of family.”

Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to get people vaccinated in a familiar and welcoming environment, Baran said the clinic brought “some enlightening moments” for nurses as well, who learned that the caring inherent in the way Indigenous-led community social services are provided extended to them, too.

“From an Indigenous perspective, you bend the rules to look after the people. ‘Standardize the norms, humanize the anomalies,’ as a professor of mine used to say,” says Baran. “It’s a different way of thinking about how you deliver services.”

B.C. health authorities have organized vaccination clinics in partnership with First Nations around the province. But the majority of Indigenous people in B.C. live off-reserve. B.C’s network of 25 friendship centres – all members of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres – reached out to individual health authorities offering to host clinics for off-reserve people.

The event at Ooknakane was the first of its kind. The Penticton First Nations even referred some of the band’s Elders to the friendship centre for their vaccination, as its own clinic was still coming up and they wanted to prioritize those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the usual daily activities at Ooknakane carried on as normal that day. People were being registered for their vaccination at the front of the building while staff at the back organized food hampers and prepared the centre’s food truck for its regular deliveries to Penticton, Osoyoos, Keremeos and beyond.

The centre serves an extensive region that stretches north from the U.S. border to Summerland, and west from Osoyoos to Princeton.

Every friendship centre provides distinct services adapted for the needs of Indigenous people in a particular region. Ooknakane’s diverse services range from pre-natal care to end-of-life planning: “We like to say that from creation to crypt, we’ve got our bases covered,” he says.

Ooknakane has a number of supports and services related to children in government care, including the Roots program connecting youth to their Indigenous ancestry and developing cultural plans for foster and adoptive parents.

The 2015 report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted British Columbia’s commitment to move toward Indigenous control of child welfare. Baran says that would allow Indigenous organizations to create systems and solutions that resonate for Indigenous families, children and youth.

The TRC report called for a refit of Canada’s child-welfare system to address the vastly disproportionate number of Indigenous children in government care. Only seven per cent of Canada’s child and youth population is Indigenous, yet Indigenous children account for more than half of the children in care.

 “Once a child goes into care, it can be very difficult to bring that child back,” says Baran.

Like most non-profit organizations, Ooknakane has a diverse funding stream that includes federal support, year-to-year provincial contracts, and grants and fundraising. That last category is vital for providing flexible funds that the centre can use wherever the need is greatest, says Baran.

Indigenous Services Canada provides some $16 million a year to Canada’s friendship centres through its Urban Programming for Indigenous People. Funds are distributed via national and provincial networks of friendship centres.

Association for Advocating for Women and Community

Bernard, Barb, Wanda and Miranda at regular morning meeting at Olive’s Branch

A major challenge in addressing homelessness is having the right supports at the right time that will help a diverse mix of people whose needs and readiness are constantly shifting and changing.

The Association for Advocating for Women and Community (AWAC) has the solution: a carefully thought out system of connected services that starts where people are at and sticks with them until their lives start to stabilize. For years, if that’s what it takes.

“AWAC was founded 26 years ago as a shelter for marginalized women and female youth struggling with addiction and homelessness,” said Connie Abe, executive director, Prince George community social service agency. “But about six years ago, we realized we had a revolving door going on, with so little ability to help people beyond meeting their immediate needs.

“So we started a housing continuum and changed our focus to include men as well. We’re proud AWAC has been able to completely transform from who we once were, but still be true to our mission. And we have a lot of success stories.”

AWAC support services start at the street level, with a drop-in centre for women living homeless that has been adapted to allow men to come in through a separate entrance for a shower and other services

The next stage is AWAC’s Housing Readiness program where people live communally but have their own bedrooms. Those who want to detox from drugs or alcohol are supported in preparing for that step.

Communal living options are an important first step in leaving the streets, Abe noted. People may have been living in homeless shelters for years. They are accustomed to having other people around and shelter staff available to help or just hang out with 24 hours a day. To address the chronic need for storage of people’s goods, AWAC offers totes and a place to store them.

Then it’s on to Victoria Towers where people ready to transition out of communal living are provided with independent, furnished apartments and support. The AWAC apartments take up one entire floor of the mixed-use apartment building, creating a safe and non-judgmental community for residents as they prepare for their next stage of change. When ready, people are supported to move into market housing or other subsidized housing options.

AWAC added another important element in their housing continuum two years ago with the purchase of a 28-room motel, dubbed Olive’s Branch.

Olive’s Branch is a transitional housing program for individuals who have begun their own unique journey of sobriety. People waiting for or completing treatment, or being released from incarceration who would otherwise face being back on the streets and close to old troubles, are offered a full range of services. This includes case workers and counselling, assistance in accessing medical care and peer support.

At every stage in the continuum, AWAC outreach workers catch people at any point where they are starting to struggle and help them get back on track. Relapses and stumbles are part of everyone’s journey out of homelessness.

“We have one woman who is such a good example of that, one of our success stories,” Abe said. “She went through all the stages, with many challenges along the way.

“Now, she has transitioned out of our Victoria Towers program and is living independently. She has a job and has her two children back in her care. She has succeeded. But it took years for her to get there. We have that ability to walk with people through all of that, and feel fortunate to have this continuum of services.”

Peer workers are a new addition for AWAC in the past year. The program adds an important element: the chance for people who have made it through their own hard journeys to support a new generation of those looking for a way out of homelessness.

“In days gone by, AWAC was known in the community as the ‘shelter of last resort.’ No longer – we’re the shelter of hope,” Abe said. “We’re going to support you with whatever you need.”

The Cridge Centre for the Family

Common thinking up until a few years ago was men were far more likely than women to end up with a brain injury.

Football, hockey, extreme sports, fighting – so many of the activities known to carry a risk of head trauma tend to be those that are more popular among males.

That’s what The Cridge Centre for the Family believed for most of the three decades it has provided support, housing and hope for people with brain injuries in Greater Victoria.

But with a growing body of research identifying a strong correlation between intimate partner violence and brain injury, The Cridge now recognizes an urgent need to expand its brain-injury supports to reach more women with experiences of domestic violence.

“Brain injury is the unseen disability that affects so many things,” said Joanne Linka, manager of communication and fund development at The Cridge. “This is a story we’ve been telling for 30 years, trying to leverage dollars and resources for this work. So when we started seeing the research about women impacted by intimate partner violence a few years ago, that jumped out at us.”

Research has established an estimated 80 per cent of women who have been in a violent relationship have had at least one brain injury. Women could be routinely experiencing one brain injury after another in cases of ongoing violence, Linka said. Strangulation plays an even more insidious role, depriving the brain of oxygen.

“A brain injury can affect a woman’s ability to work, to function, to parent, to manage her life. We know the spiral into poverty, addiction and criminal activities. They need support early.”

The Cridge has developed a five-point plan for stepping up its work with women who have brain injuries due to intimate partner violence. The plan includes direct services, research participation, training and support for front-line workers to recognize brain injury, advocacy to raise awareness and funding support, and prevention.

That prevention piece includes working with male abusers to reduce abusive behaviours and learn to regulate their emotions, Linka said, adding that more than half of male abusers have suffered a brain injury themselves.

The Cridge is a faith-based community social services agency and the longest-running charity in Western Canada, with 148 years of service. Some 2,000 people a year access its eight programs serving a diverse population across all ages, genders, cultures, faiths, income levels and personal circumstances.

Cridge services include a women’s transition house, where the impact of brain injury on the lives of women who have experienced intimate partner violence plays out every day in myriad ways.

“Seeing what goes on for the women who we serve, it’s heart wrenching to know that they will struggle for the rest of their lives,” Linka said. “And that is where we come in. We can help them find the support they need to reduce that struggle.

“Their brain injury affects them in every way. For instance, there’s one woman we support who we know loves her kids, but her injury is so severe that even getting them to school on time is a huge challenge. That puts her at risk of having her children end up in care.”

With the right kind of individualized services, Linka noted, people can adapt and learn new ways to manage their lives in healthy, safe ways. A day when there are no victims of intimate partner violence and no one has to fear not being believed is the ultimate dream guiding The Cridge’s work.

Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-op

Members of the Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-op, which has 18 non-profit members in the Columbia Basin

Connecting with like-minded people to make things happen is a key foundation of community social services and the non-profit sector overall.

That principle has guided the work of the Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-operative since it was founded almost 20 years ago.

The co-op emerged out of a decision among Kootenay area community social service agencies to begin working together more purposefully to allow them to bid as a region on larger contracts for delivering social services on behalf of government. “They knew they couldn’t do it alone, but could do it together,” said Janice Murphy, executive director of the co-op.

The co-op has grown to 18 member organizations with a unique governance model to ensure the work of the co-op is guided directly by its members. The council of members is made up of one volunteer and one paid staff from each agency, with a board of directors elected from among that group.

“The Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-operative’s member organizations provide essential services and resources for their most vulnerable community members,” said Niki Sharma, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. “The past year has been challenging for all British Columbians, and the collaborative work of the co-op is a great example of the role that non-profits have played in the pandemic response and in strengthening our communities.”

Forming a co-op has allowed member organizations to take on more regional work. Various members deliver social services in their communities while Murphy and the co-op office handle the administration.

In addition to the diverse social services each agency provides, co-op members lead two regional programs: Safe Kids & Youth (SKY) Coordinated Response Child and Youth Advocacy Centre (supported with one-time grant funding through the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General’s Civil Forfeiture Crime Prevention and Remediation Grant Program and the Department of Justice); and a regional parenting program through Interior Health.

Co-op members have also taken part in a series of one-minute videos they can use to recruit new board members and volunteers in their communities. Membership goes well beyond the Kootenays, with member agencies now as far north as Valemount and east to Fernie.

“The pandemic has really shown the benefit of being in a co-op,” Murphy said. “We started a regular check in. We hired a consultant to help people figure out an opening plan. We were able to pivot to where the need was.”

The co-op’s funding primarily comes from the Columbia Basin Trust, a community-guided trust established in 1995 that now distributes over $50 million a year to support social, environmental and economic initiatives in the B.C. communities most adversely affected by the international Columbia River Treaty. Community well-being is one of six key focuses for the trust.

“The trust funds the co-op office and the projects that our members need but that no one else funds for our sector – human resources, IT, training,” said Murphy. “We’ve got a shared finance automation project underway and are looking for opportunities where we can purchase bulk for members.

“We’re also working together to develop common quality performance measures. We all know we need more data for our sector, and the co-op is trying to satisfy that need in this region.”

Collaboration has increased among members in general, Murphy notes – to the benefit of all. For example, five co-op members share the same accountant, who is helping them streamline invoicing and expense claims and develop tighter financial controls.

Having more sophisticated financial procedures newly available to even the smallest of those agencies is drawing the interest of more funders, Murphy said.

Looking to the future, Murphy’s dream is the gift of more time for senior staff so they “have time to think” about other projects the co-op members could pursue together and other directions the work could take.

“Could we work together to improve the way we interact with Indigenous people? One of our member organizations, the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society, is doing some really interesting things,” said Murphy. “They’re developing a toolkit with the support of their Elders to share Indigenous cultural awareness training with our members and other agencies in the basin. Our co-op members are fully behind this opportunity and have committed funds and time.” 

John Howard Society Pacific

The need to act fast during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to brilliant breakthroughs in supporting British Columbians with complex needs, says the chief executive officer of John Howard Society Pacific.

“Throughout the pandemic, discussions of challenges moved to operational plans much faster than we ever could have imagined,” Mark Miller says. “I really saw that we have the ability in B.C. to make these decisions quickly, to get a service happening.”

An example of that is John Howard’s new Community Support Initiative (CSI), launched in the early months of the pandemic in partnership with the provincial government. BC Corrections works with community partners and First Nations to prevent homelessness and return people to their home communities when they are being released from custody.

John Howard organizations were once known primarily for their work with men involved in the criminal justice system. These days, the non-profit community social service works more broadly to support all people with complex needs to live and thrive within their communities.

Through CSI, the agency worked closely with BC Housing, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction and BC Corrections to find housing for people who were at risk of being homeless upon release from a correctional centre.

“Our organization was able to mobilize services and has supported more than 285 people in communities all over B.C. since the program began in May 2020,” Miller says.

Clients come to John Howard with personal experiences of trauma, incarceration, cultural and systemic barriers, extreme poverty and homelessness. They receive individualized support through diverse community-based programs. Others have lifelong developmental disabilities and are supported through services and specialized housing funded by Community Living BC.

The John Howard Society also has a contract with the Canada Border Services Agency to support and temporarily house people detained at the Canada-U.S. border, who would otherwise have to be held in correctional facilities.

Being able to deliver the new CSI services across the six John Howard non-profits operating in the province has been key to the success of the program, Miller says.

“John Howard Pacific is the contract holder, and we have service agreements with the other John Howard Society regions,” he says. “Shared services are something we need to look at doing more of in our sector. We need to find the ways to work collaboratively and allow the grassroots work to be done within the community.”

John Howard Society also provides services in the Yukon. Mid-pandemic, the organization created supervised housing located in unused space at a Correctional Service Canada federal correctional facility. Housing in the territory is chronically scarce for people being released from incarceration.

“The pandemic has been an interesting period of time that way,” says Miller. “I recently spoke at the National Criminal Justice Symposium because of the work we were able to do during the pandemic, including for people in the justice system. While COVID-19 has certainly been challenging, it has also created opportunities to do things differently.”

Almost a third of John Howard’s clients are Indigenous. Helping more Indigenous clients reconnect with their Nation of origin is a key goal for the organization, Miller says.

Housing will continue to be a major focus area for John Howard and virtually any community non-profit serving people experiencing poverty, says Miller. But he adds that housing isn’t where the story ends.

“Our staff continually note the need for progress – to follow housing with employment, or school or some other purpose,” Miller says. “Once you’ve got piece 1 in place, what’s piece 2? How do we support people to grow into the strongest person they can be? Let’s not stop at housing. Let’s work to engage people in an inclusive society.”

Archway Community Services

Archway youth take action in front of organization’s Diversity Wall

Walter Paetkau was a young Mennonite on a mission when he first arrived in Abbotsford in the 1960s with a passion for community development.

More than half a century later, those seeds that Paetkau nurtured have grown into 90-plus diverse community social services programs that Archway Community Services now provides.

“What began with two staff has grown to 450, and more than 1,000 volunteers,” says Archway Executive Director Rod Santiago. “But the way we do our work has never changed. Walter was all about pulling people into the work very deliberately. It’s never about waving an Archway banner, it’s about building a strong and healthy community.”

Archway groups its multitude of programs and services into four focus areas: social justice and equity; counselling children, youth and families; immigrant integration and multicultural services; and recycling. That last one includes contracting with the municipalities of Abbotsford and Mission to sort the communities’ recyclables – an undertaking that provides jobs to 50 people, many who have experienced barriers to employment, says Santiago.

The pandemic brought challenges from all directions as Archway pivoted to be able to keep services going safely. The organization quickly formed a COVID-19 planning committee that met daily and then weekly. That was later augmented with a second team charged with envisaging how the pandemic might be affecting the organization six months out, and a year out, and what needed to be done to prepare for that.

With clientele ranging across all age groups, genders, cultures and personal circumstance, Archway adapted services in whatever way worked best for those being served, says Santiago.

With the support of the United Way and funding specific to COVID-19, Archway enhanced its food bank and the existing 12 satellite sites, including adding one that specializes Asian and halal foods – important in a community where 25 per cent of the population identifies as South Asian, and where the dietary needs of Syrian families require checking in on outdated paradigms.

Food hamper pickup shifted to drop-offs. Outreach was increased for isolated seniors. The Archway parking lot became a meeting space for the men’s anger management support group.

Through the Better At Home program funded by the B.C. government and administered by the United Way, Archway expanded its support to seniors in their own homes to reach more isolated seniors through services including the delivery of groceries and prescription medications, dog-walking, and social visits. 

Youth were taken on a virtual trip to Playland, with cotton candy and mini doughnuts dropped off at their doors to get things started.

The move to virtual programming in some cases opened services up to far more people, notes Santiago. The Family Centre at Archway is now attracting up to 400 people for its English and Punjabi activities presented on Facebook Live.

The pandemic highlighted the tremendous need for mental health and wellness supports, adds Santiago. Archway hopes to expand supports to do more in that area in the future, along with Indigenous inclusion and adding more seniors’ services in Abbotsford.

The funding that supports Archway’s work is as diverse as its services, says Santiago. The organization receives funding from seven B.C. government ministries as well as from federal ministries, municipal contracts, corporate donors and fundraising. It also generates revenue through its own social enterprises, including and interpretation and translation service.

That service provides certified interpretation in more than 75 languages that is used for court proceedings and in communities across the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland.

Archway loves seeing any of its programs adapted for use elsewhere, says Santiago.

The Starfish Pack program, for instance, was launched a few years ago to address the problem of a weekend without food for children who depend on school meal programs from Monday to Friday. The take-home packs provide two breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and are generous enough to share. The Rotary Club of Abbotsford has played a major role spearheading the effort.

Starfish Packs are now in 35 Abbotsford schools and 20 other B.C. communities. “That’s part of who we are at Archway. We share ownership and solutions – we don’t keep them to ourselves,” says Santiago.

Archway is always seeking new opportunities to partner with others in the community to address emerging needs, he adds. In a community with a square-kilometre footprint that makes it the biggest city in B.C. but lacking a sophisticated public transit system, even transportation is a social issue.

Archway has jumped into that need in a community van program that helps the most vulnerable in the community get where they need to go.

“At Archway,” says Santiago, “we ask, ‘What is the need?’ What are we going to do about it, and who needs to be part of the solution?”

Esquimalt Neighbourhood House

Trevor Oram hadn’t anticipated his work as president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union would prepare him for future work as a volunteer counsellor at Esquimalt Neighbourhood House Society (ENH).

It turns out that good listening skills and an empathetic approach to people’s problems are “quite transferable to the counselling field,” Oram says. Ten years into that work, he’s not only continuing to see half a dozen clients a week, he chairs the board that governs the Greater Victoria community social services agency.

For volunteer counsellor Patti Webster, it was the chance to give back to support her community that drew her to the neighbourhood house’s 10-month training program. That was 11 years ago. Webster’s commitment to the work has never flagged. “To me, it’s a huge honour that people will sit with me and speak of things that they may have never spoken of to anyone before,” Webster says. “That’s a gift, and a really wonderful place where I get to learn.”

ENH launched its volunteer counselling program 27 years ago. Between 60 and 80 people apply every year to get into the training. Sixteen are carefully chosen and typically accepted.

Each volunteer who takes the training agrees to give 200 hours of unpaid counselling to ENH in exchange for the free training. ENH currently has a pool of 35 active volunteer counsellors who provide up to 10 free counselling sessions for a diverse array of clients – many of whom could never afford to access counselling otherwise.

“This is absolutely a need-to-have service. The referrals come in from all over,” Webster says. “And because there’s no exchange of money, the hierarchy isn’t there. That’s really important for people who are at a point in their life where they’re struggling.”

Oram says ENH works hard to keep its “radical program” as barrier free as possible. Counsellors range across all ages, genders, diversity, levels of education, income levels and culture, as do the people accessing counselling.

The demand for counselling has doubled during the pandemic. Fortunately, temporary pandemic-related supports from government have helped the neighbourhood house rise to the challenge, says Mary Lynn McKenna, ENH’s executive director.

ENH counselling has gone virtual in the pandemic – not to every counsellor’s liking, notes Webster. She much prefers to do her counselling in person. But the distance option has proven popular with some clients. “It’s not my preference to do counselling on the phone and has been quite an adjustment, but you get used to it,” Webster says. “Some clients do actually prefer it, like a visually impaired client of mine who appreciates not having to make their way to our office every time.”

Volunteering with ENH has felt like such an important way to give back, Webster says. “You just have to give back if you’re going to build community. There would be big holes in our communities if it weren’t for that volunteer piece.”

The B.C. government has proclaimed May 2-8, 2021, as Neighbourhood House Week, in honour of the services and supports to families, children and youth, and seniors that neighbourhood houses provide their communities. Neighbourhood houses are non-profit, charitable organizations that rely on volunteers, in addition to their staff, to create welcoming, inclusive spaces.