Christmas Fund: Closer to Home helps vulnerable families cope

Nybol suffered her first losses years before she came to Calgary.

While she was fleeing a civil war in her native Sudan, her infant daughter succumbed to a fever. Her first husband died of cancer. It was considerable emotional baggage to bring to Canada. But her problems didn’t end when she arrived in Calgary in 2002. The mother of seven children saw her eldest daughter begin struggling with mental health issues. She became pregnant at 15 and was traumatized after giving up the child. In 2017, six years after she gave up her baby, Nybol’s daughter attempted to take her own life by laying down on the tracks in Calgary. She was hit by a train and suffered severe brain damage. The recovery has been slow, but Nybol refused to give up on her daughter, spending most of her days at her side in the hospital.

“The doctor said he would take (her off life-support),” Nybol says. “I said no. Leave the girl. God gave me this daughter. I can’t do it. I kept fighting with them.”

Nybol’s friend and neighbour Akuer also fled the Sudan. Upon arriving in Canada, she made the decision to leave her abusive husband. In Calgary, her oldest son began showing troubling traits while in junior high. He eventually became mixed up in drugs and fell into a deep depression. Like Nybol’s daughter, he attempted suicide.

“Before my son was 15, he was a good boy,” Akuer says. “All the neighbours, they knew him. When he started to go to (school) in Grade 10, he became very addicted to the drugs. It made him crazy.”

Nybol and Akuer live in the same housing complex in southwest Calgary and eventually became friends. There they also met Minoush Rafie, the program co-ordinator at Closer to Home Community Services, who simply knocked on the women’s door one day a few years back and offered help.

Closer to Home, one of 12 agencies to benefit from the 2018 Herald Christmas Fund, became a beacon of support, community, safety and friendship for the women.

“Minoush would talk to me a lot and make me calm down,” Nybol says. “With this country, it’s really hard. You need to be patient. Sometimes my blood will go high and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I would talk to Minoush and she would calm me down. They watched my kids in the time that I was in the hospital. I needed something here. They helped with the food, a lot of the stuff.”

The two women and their families received much more than moral support and child care services, of course. Closer to Home, which served 2,263 people last year, offers support for vulnerable children, youth and families suffering from poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence and trauma. The organization offers a full continuum of services, from working with families at risk of having children removed from their care by Children’s Services to running community group or “teaching” homes to facilitating foster care. But the underlying motivation for all of the services is reflected in its main mission statement: “Empowering families to stay together.”

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Nybol and Akuer have used many of the programs offered through Closer to Home’s West Central Resources Centre. During the dark days when both were dealing with their teenagers’ mental illness, their other children accessed Home Alone Safety workshops and a babysitting course for children aged 12 to 16. There was a homework club and even a toy-lending library. The women themselves enlisted in programs that taught money management and joined a women’s group that taught cooking and sewing skills and also offered a forum for mothers to discuss their challenges with each other. Workers at Closer to Home helped Akuer get the lease of her apartment put in her name rather than her ex-husband’s.

Many of the programs are offered within Nybol and Akuer’s housing complex.

“They also need to make sure the other children are OK,” says Rafie. “It’s using early intervention to get the kids to different programs. If one child is practising this kind of behaviour, there’s no guarantee other children will not follow. That’s where we really get involved. If one child does it, then you worry about the younger (children). We make sure they are accessing the program and that the mom is getting support and boosting her confidence to be able to do better parenting.”

While Closer to Home serves many families that are living in poverty and also new Canadians such as Nybol and Akuer, its clientele comes from all walks of life. The organization is developing a Youth Mental Health and Wellness Initiative, which will help families communicate and identify mental health issues. Working with low-income housing, schools, community centres and churches, the program aims to identify youth who are at risk and provide outreach, group sessions workshops and drop-in sessions.

At-risk youth can suffer from isolation, anxiety, self-harm, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, addiction, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Clinical counsellors will come on site to complement work being done by Closer to Home staff, who identify the skills, strategies and activities youth require to address their needs. There’s after-school programming that deals with youth leadership and other skill-building.

“Often it’s helping parents know how to communicate with their kids and kids knowing how to understand their own emotional state and regulate and be able to access supports around that,” says Arlene Oostenbrink, associate director of programs for Closer to Home. ”

“The reality is, the programs are just a way to get kids in the door,” adds program manager Kandi Santerno. “We know there’s bigger work to be done. Kids want to learn how to cook? Perfect, let’s call it a cooking program. I know if I can get you in the door I can teach you much bigger skills like how to problem solve, how to ask for help, how to advocate for yourself. Those are really the things we are teaching. We can call it anything to get the kids in the door, but we know the work we’re doing is really skill development.”

For Nybol and Akuer, Closer to Home has become a part of their life. They both volunteer for the organization’s Brown Bagging for Calgary Kids.

“With all the difficulties they have in their life, they give something back to the community by volunteering,” says Rafie. “They are engaging with their neighbours. These ladies are our ambassadors in the community. They knock on doors. They volunteer their time, no matter how busy they are.”

To donate, call 403-235-7481 or go to https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/startup.aspx?eventid=273670

To read other Christmas Fund stories, go to calgaryherald.com/tag/calgary-herald-christmas-fund-2018

 

 

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