Celebrating International Day of Families

On May 15, we celebrate the International Day of Families. We all know how challenging this past year has been for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted individuals and families across our community—people have lost jobs, parents and caregivers have struggled with working from home while taking care of children or helping them with online learning, and we have been unable to celebrate holidays and special events together.

Despite these challenges, many people have found creative ways to make it through, adapting and adjusting to new ways of living.

And, local non-profits have played an important role in helping thousands of families adjust to this new life. To celebrate the International Day of Families, we are sharing the great work of some of our partner agencies. We sat down with representatives from Between Friends, Families Matter, and Renfrew Educational Services to talk about the many social programs these agencies have offered over this past year to help local families.

Between Friends – virtual programs help break down barriers

Between Friends has been offering social and recreational programs in Calgary and the surrounding area for nearly 40 years. Through their programs, Between Friends works to increase our community’s awareness, positive attitudes, and sensitivity towards our fellow citizens with disabilities. Yet, the organization serves anyone in need of help, regardless of their age or abilities.

Like many local organizations, Between Friends had to quickly pivot to offering online programming as the COVID-19 pandemic hit our city. CEO Kim Presser explained that while initially this transition presented some hurdles, online programs have opened the door to new opportunities: “Online programming works better for some families that may not have been able to access our services in the past due to transportation or time barriers. It really has enabled more people who need help across our community to connect with us, and with each other, for support.”

Over the past year, Between Friends has seen great success in their virtual dances with a live DJ, virtual watch parties, online games nights, and other special events. The organization dropped off craft supply boxes at participants’ doorsteps prior to their online Mother’s Day crafting session, offered community-based scavenger hunts, and a virtual Santa visit at Christmas. These programs have helped local families feel a sense of inclusion and connection with others in a time of social isolation.

The organization is most proud of the fact that they have been able to reach out and call each participant three times over the past year, just to check in.

“It really gives people a chance to stop and reflect, and maybe even unload some emotions,” said Presser. “We have found that a lot of parents have been so thankful for this check in, for someone simply asking how they are doing.”

Looking for ways to keep your family busy during these long days at home? Between Friends offers at-home resources for all members of the family to enjoy. Activities are divided up by age group and categories such as “Get active,” “Music session resources,” “Relax and Recharge,” and others.

Families Matter – helping families through hardship

Families Matter is focused on empowering families to ensure caregivers and children build resilience and thrive. Supporting the mental health of parents has been a major focus for the organization over the past year. Due to provincial restrictions limiting in-person contact, many parents have struggled, unable to rely on extended family for support. Added stressors such as job losses and increased emotions have resulted in higher risk for domestic violence, adding pressure to an already difficult situation.

Danielle Ladouceur, executive director at Families Matter, explains how great the need has been: “There has never been a more stressful time for families, because of the isolation, because of the worries for the future, because of worries about their child’s well-being, because there are more people under one roof at the same time. What we’ve seen during COVID-19 is that families are experiencing more severe challenges because of the isolation; it’s harder for them to reach out for help and to get support.”

One of the most successful programs Families Matter offers is their peer-to-peer support program for families experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety. In this program, parents who have experienced mental health challenges after the birth of a child and made it through to the other side are partnered with those who are still struggling, offering hope that it is possible to overcome these difficulties and heal.

“It is really encouraging for parents to hear that other parents are going through the same thing and that you’re not weird, you’re not different, it’s not shameful,” said Ladouceur. “It’s something that people go through and you can help each other.”

Families Matter also offers a program for young parents ages 16-22. Ladouceur explained that many of the participants in this program are single parents living in poverty and struggling to support themselves and their child. To alleviate some of that stress, Families Matter helps participants meet their basic needs, ensuring they have food, shelter, and baby supplies so that they can focus on their mental well-being. To learn more about this organization and the supports they offer, visit www.familiesmatter.ca.

Renfrew Educational Services – specialized help for individuals and families

Staff at Renfrew Educational Services recognize that no single education program will suit all children, just as no single form of support will suit everyone. That is why the organization offers a broad range of specialized programs and services for children with special needs, along with their families.

Karen Beekhuizen, family support manager at Renfrew Educational Services, explained that the organization offers monthly virtual activities for the whole family, which give participants the opportunity to take part in a hands-on activity, such as pumpkin carving or wreath-making, while being able to connect with one another.

Beekhuizen said, “since these sessions are facilitated by a social worker, they give parents the opportunity to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. They also help social workers leading the sessions identify if a family seems to be struggling, financially, with their mental health, or in any other way, and be able to connect back with the parents later to help them get through the situation.”

Another great service that Renfrew Educational Services offers is the Parent Contact Booklet. This resource allows parents to connect with others in the community who may be in similar situations. This resource is especially useful for those who have very specific needs.

“If parents have a young child with autism who is non-verbal and would like to connect with other parents that have a young child with autism who is non-verbal, the Parent Contact Booklet will help them connect,” explained Beekhuizen. “It really is a great way for the families to build communities of people that they can relate to and discuss similar challenges with.”

Due to social isolation and the inability to get out physically and meet new people over the past year, the Parent Contact Booklet has grown by 129% since the start of 2020, showing the obvious need for this connection within our community.

To learn more about Renfrew Educational Services and how the organization serves children and families, visit www.renfreweducation.org.

Supporting vulnerable families is more important now than ever

By building the resilience of families across our city and the surrounding area over this past year, these three local organizations and many more like them have helped Calgarians get through this difficult time.
United, we make the biggest difference.

Find support

If you and your family need help navigating this challenging time, support is available. Made possible by United Way of Calgary and Area, 211 is a free, confidential service that helps Albertans find the right resource for whatever issue they need help with. It is available 24/7 by phone, text, or online chat—simply dial 211, text “INFO” to 211, or visit ab.211.ca.