Wood's Homes Blog

Two Lenses: From the frontline to behind-the-scenes

August 20, 2020
By Justin Wilson, Wood's Homes Communications Co-ordinator
Two Lenses: From the frontline to behind-the-scenes

I took on the role of Communications Co-ordinator for Wood’s Homes about five years ago. That’s a fair length of time, but one that pales in comparison to many of my colleagues, some of whom have been here 10, 15, 20 and even 30 years dedicating their professional lives to improving the lives of thousands of struggling youth and families. In the long run, I’m fully aware that five years really isn’t a long time, but early in one’s career, I think it’s one of those numbers you hit and then reflect on a bit. But I can’t really view my time here as a period totally separate from, or lacking consideration for, the years I spent on the other side of the social services coin. I decided to move on from that, but that I still truly admire others for doing the difficult work.

Before I came to Wood’s Homes, I worked as a Youth & Family Counsellor (YFC) for six years at another Calgary organization. So my professional life in the social services realm has spanned 11 years. It’s a unique feeling to know that for half my time in the Human Services field, I was a supporting character in the story of those struggling with loss, crisis at home, abandonment, violence… and the other half has involved behind-the-scenes collaboration with YFCs, clinicians, psychiatrists, etc. With their help and the relationships they build with clients, I now work to tell those stories through a number of mediums – Videos, Annual Reports, Blogs, Success Stories, etc., - to promote the important work being done here, spotlight the challenges faced by those who turn to Wood’s Homes, and inform about the ways our community can help.

Looking at this field from two different lenses, a few observations:

1 | There are as many ways to help as there are people who want to do it.

I genuinely think most people want to help, but some don’t know where to start, or may not have the means to from a monetary standpoint. I work closely with our Community Engagement Co-ordinator, as well as Wood’s Homes Foundation staff and get to observe the array of ways the community can, and does, positively impact the lives of our clients:

  • A simple donation of gently used clothing, backpacks and winter apparel makes a huge difference to youth at the EXIT Youth Hub.
  • Volunteering in our programs can mean clients who may struggle to form relationships now have someone to bond with.
  • Corporate Days of Caring can mean the beautifying of our campuses that our Live-In Treatment clients temporarily call home.
  • Those with special skills can volunteer their time to teach or entertain youth (we’ve had professional athletes, musicians, craftspeople and more volunteer their skills).
  • Online donations can mean that programs of most need receive additional support to care for our clients.
  • There are too many examples to name, so I’d suggest clicking HERE if you’d like to know more.

2 | The effort, commitment and client-focused endeavors of frontline workers can’t really be fully explained to those who have not done the work, nor can it be effectively learned without jumping into with both feet.

The types of issues that frontline workers help people through - neglect, violence, trauma, self-harm, addiction - aren’t generally topics that pop up when discussing occupations in broad social circles. I can recall when my friends in other industries would converse about pretty standard straight from TV workplace shenanigans and I’d be recalling the home visit I’d done that day where a father showed up angry and unannounced and the police had to be called. The break room talk among those working directly with children, youth and families in crisis is very different than those working in other fields.

But there is a silver lining here; the bonds formed between YFCs through shared, sometimes difficult experience, can really only be formed by those who understand and are committed to the work. The programs and counsellors who share these bonds are almost always the most well equipped to help clients through tough times. I see these strong relationships between counsellors here quite often and I feel fortunate to have experienced it. I think it helps me connect with the language of those working directly with clients.

3 | The success of clients is relative and their journey can be pretty long.

When I worked with youth, I would regularly transport some of them from their placements to their school. This is needed for a number of reasons: Some youth change placements quite often, but their school remains the same. Some youth have behavioural challenges that effect their ability to ride the bus without incident. Some need to be picked up from respite placements during stays away from their foster or group homes. Some youth in care have visits with their family during the day and require rides to and from. The list goes on.

For a time, the morning commute was with youth named Mitch (name changed). He was pretty talkative, which I’m generally not, so I’d usually drink my bodyweight in coffee before picking him up in the morning. He was also a good kid, even though I knew he had some behavioural issues and violent tendencies. I worked with him until I left my social services role.

Fast forward maybe eight years… now as Wood’s Homes Communications Co-ordinator, I was busy creating a video showcasing the success of two clients for a fundraiser. I showed up to the program, video equipment in-hand, and there’s Mitch, now enrolled in our culinary program. He recognized me right away. It took me a second given the time I hadn’t seen him, but then it clicked.

It hit me that he was still involved with social services, but that’s how these things sometimes go. When I first met him, success would have been considered keeping his temper in check and maintaining a long-term placement. Years later, success is enrolment in this program with hope of landing a job in the restaurant or hospitality industry. And he’s far from the only client at Wood’s I’ve become familiar with who has a long story. It’s all relative.

4 | In any client-serving industry, success comes from meeting people where they’re at and striving to exceed expectations.

Those who don’t work directly with clients, who don’t hear their stories or don’t really understand how mental health challenges can seriously impact an entire family, may not understand just how resilient those who seek help really are. It’s the job of the helpers to match that resiliency and reassure struggling youth and families that they’ll be supported even during the toughest times – like during a pandemic.

In this weird, confusing and uncertain COVID-19-dominated time, each and every program here has had to rethink and, in some cases, completely overhaul how to continue supporting thousands of clients. It’s been incredibly interesting to learn about, and disseminate information about how programs have adapted. For clients in our Live-In and Community-Based mental health programs, as well as for the nearly 100 youth in our Foster Care program, family visitation, meetings with social workers, psychiatrists, doctors, and other tertiary services are important elements of support and provide extremely meaningful connection at a crucial time. All of these interactions were moved to a virtual setting.   

Our Learning Centres are temporarily closed so school support counsellors were redeployed in-program in order to continue education and treatment; our Eastside Family Centre moved all of its counselling services online via Virtual Therapy Sessions; our culinary program began making treats for the community to brighten the spirits of those who were stuck inside during the initial stages of quarantine. Our EXIT Youth Hub, following COVID-19 protocols, temporarily closed its doors, but was able to continue supporting street-involved youth using a newly implemented mobile service, delivering food and care-packages to at-risk youth who were also provided information about mental health support.
It’s been a pretty interesting few months.

5 | Work / life balance has been written about a million times by a million people so I’ll keep this last point short, but the answer to where you work and what you do should not be the same thing.

Clients, families and those who visit our campuses and programs on a professional level see counsellors, psychiatrists, clinicians, etc. – individuals defined by the role they fill while they’re at work. And for those who need help and are struggling with their mental health, those roles are exactly what’s required and what will be the most effective in meeting their needs.

But I’ve always ascribed to the idea that one’s occupation shouldn’t define them or be the go-to answer to “What do you do?” in a new social setting. Something I’ve noticed both in my past-life YFC role and in my current communications position is that the clinicians and counsellors who excel at Wood’s Homes are also the most open about their hobbies and vibrant lives outside of work. Even as I write this I can think of a colleague who also plans weddings and events, one just got her motorcycle licence, several are accomplished musicians, there’s a former pro hockey player, a school support counsellor who has frequently appeared on CBC’s Unconventional Panel, an amazing painter who regularly donates pieces to our annual Oktoberfest Fundraiser.

This isn’t to say it’s easy to leave things at the door; these are compassionate people who want to help and who, on a daily basis, take on the challenge of working with those who desperately need it. But I’ve found that the best ones for the job really try to define that line, even if it’s sometimes blurred. And I think the reason they’re so highly equipped to help those who struggle is that they understand that it goes both ways: Our clients are not defined by their involvement with Wood’s. They’re not defined by their mental health challenges, family crisis or struggles with addiction or homelessness. No one should be defined by their lowest point, and the reality is, that’s the place where many start when they come here for help.

People are more than what’s on the surface and I think, especially now, when it’s so easy to latch on to conflict or trivial debate, it’s important to keep in mind.