Heather is a story about resilience, support, kindness, and gratitude. Born into a family that appeared to be healthy and thriving, behind closed doors her parents struggled with addiction. Heather and her sisters spend their youth in foster care before landing with a family that were United Way donors and volunteers that connected them to the support they needed. As she grew into adulthood, Heather struggled to understand her trauma but found support through United Way-supported care. Today, she is a proud mom and United Way volunteer.
“When you give to United Way to the Community Impact Fund, you are saying, “I trust you to do the very best you can with my dollars. I’m not an expert in the community. You’re the expert in the community. I’m going to give to you to your community impact fund so that my dollar goes where it’s needed the most.”
I was born in 1970 in Calgary to a great family. Two parents, two older brothers and four sisters. And on the surface, everything about our family looked normal. We had a beautiful bungalow in Hayesboro with a huge front yard full of trees and a big backyard to run in. We were two blocks from our school, and I walked there daily with my sisters. But what nobody really knew or understood about our family was that there were some significant issues behind closed doors.
My parents met, fell in love and had this idyllic-looking family. Still, both families had addictions in their histories, and my parents were severe alcoholics. So there were lots and lots of issues in our family around that. When I was seven, we were pulled into the principal’s office. We were told by a stranger that we wouldn’t be going home that evening. We were going to be going to a foster home.
We lived there for three months and then were placed back with our parents; everybody hoped things would be better, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. It was worse. The addictions were worse; there was violence and abuse, and many times, I would run out the door in my bare feet, in my nightgown, to the neighbors to call the police and ask them to come and save my mom from my dad. We were taken away again and placed on a farm in southern Alberta.
We were city kids and didn’t know anything about the farm, but we hoped again that it would be a safe place for us, but it wasn’t. I think we were brought onto the farm to work, and they didn’t care about us very much. They didn’t treat us very well, but I had my sisters with me, and that made all the difference in the world. I also had an incredible teacher from Calgary who reached out and connected with us, some extended family who were monitoring the situation, and a wonderful social worker in Calgary who was really paying attention. They all realized that something was wrong after a full year of us not communicating with our family at all. We were told our first year that if we communicated with family, we would end up having to go home and be back in an abusive situation.
Finally, our family said, “No, that’s not acceptable. We still need to know that they’re okay.” So, they brought us back to Calgary and we were finally placed with amazing foster parents. John and Judy became foster parents for us because they knew my grade four French teacher, Madam Innes, and they were terrific. They were super smart, well-educated, and really caring people. They were also donors and volunteers with United Way, so they knew all the systems and supports that United Way helps in the community that they could help find access for us.
We had counselling, talked to mentors, and had educational support, which helped us begin to thrive. They made such a huge difference in my life, and because of them, I finished high school and went on to university. I got into social work at the University of Calgary, and things started to move forward.
Everything looked great, but I was struggling, and university was tough. I needed some support, so I contacted the Calgary Counseling Centre. They’re a funded agency through United Way, and they helped me tremendously. I was able to go back, finish university and start my career, and then I was working full time. I was deeply in debt, and I was really struggling. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was struggling, so at 22, I decided to take my own life. I just had this sense of absolute despair and hopelessness that I was alone and nobody understood. I thought that was the right decision for me then, and I was ready to do it.
I was living in Inglewood at the time, and I saw the Alex Community Health Center across the street, and I thought, “Hey, let’s just try it and see what happens. I’ve had counselling before. It’s worked for me. One last try, and let’s see what happens.” I went to the Alex and had an amazing counsellor who helped me. After lots of tears and lots of work, I was able to come back from that.
A Better Tomorrow Starts with You
The beauty of giving to United Way is the breadth and depth of the work that they do and the reach that they have. They can see what supports are needed in the community and actively talk to the organizations that are doing the work. When you give to United Way, your dollar goes the absolute furthest it can because they have that expertise. United Way is at every part of the continuum. They do it all: prevention, intervention, and long-term change. You can’t do that with one organization.
When you give to the Community Impact Fund, you say, “I trust you to do the best you can with my dollars. I’m not an expert in the community. You’re the expert in the community. I will give to your Community Impact Fund so that my dollar goes where it’s most needed.”
Giving to the Community Impact Fund means that United Way can address upcoming issues. Suppose your funds are restricted to specific programs and specific areas. In that case, you never have the opportunity to look at something that’s really innovative and create a significant change.
We can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting a better result and United Way is very focused on making sure that they’re investing in the very, very best that’s going to make a difference for the human being that’s at the center of all of the work.
Today, Heather is an Impact Speaker for United Way and regularly talks with audiences of all types about her journey. Her story proves that the long-term, vision and wraparound support of United Way is working. When you give to the Community Impact Fund, you invest in your community and ensure Calgarians like Heather have a chance to grow up into healthy, happy, adults, parents, co-workers, and community builders.