Volunteers support at-risk families beyond the delivery room

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As any new mom or dad will tell you, parenting can be challenging at the best of times. But if you’re a new parent who is also coping with your own severe illness, managing multiples or a special needs child with little outside help, or struggling with post-partum depression, the journey can feel isolating and downright overwhelming.

For a number of parents in Scarborough, however, the road is a lot less lonely these days thanks to VHA Home HealthCare’s (VHA) unique Parent Relief Volunteer Program (PRVP)—a volunteer-based service, funded by both the United Way and VHA—that offers moms and dads a vital break from the demands of parenting.

“The program is really about helping families avoid a crisis situation,” notes VHA Volunteer Co-ordinator Roseanna Wirt, who designed and now runs the program. “Many of our clients are at risk of or suffering from post-partum depression,” adds Wirt. “They leave the hospital unprepared to deal with the situation and usually have little or no family help. The lack of supports can make a challenging situation seem impossible.”

Such was the case for Samira, who spiraled into a depression after the birth of her second child. Alone (her partner currently lives abroad for work) with two young children in a new country, Samira didn’t know where to turn. “I was depressed, alone and I don’t have family…it was a very bad situation,” says Samira. The hospital social worker and her local Children’s Aid initially referred her to VHA’s Parent Relief Program, which provides families with up to 30 hours of help from a Personal Support Worker. Once this service concluded, she was referred to the Program’s volunteer-based “cousin.” Launched in 2006, the PRVP serves families in Scarborough’s “priority neighbourhoods” and offers referred families three hours of volunteer support per week for up to four months. Volunteers are matched with families based on needs, language, availability, etc.

Samira is clearly moved by the relationship she’s developed with her volunteer helper, Beverly Douthwright, a high school teacher by day, over the last several months. “She (Beverly) is always talking very nice to me like my very close sister or my mom. She always gives me the best advice…If I didn’t have her I would be very depressed and wouldn’t have energy for my kids. Beverly helped me with everything— she’s perfect!”

But the families aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience. “I thought it would be great to be able to assist families who needed support but never realized what a blessing they would be to me too,” notes Beverly, Samira’s volunteer. “Samira recently told me that both she and her boys eagerly await my Saturday morning visit… Mom (Samira) looks forward to having someone to bounce ideas off of…She sometimes does not feel she understands exactly how things work in Canada and she loves to be able to talk things over with me.”

Over the last several years Beverly has helped several families, each with unique needs and challenges. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with many delightful families including: three with twins; a single mom family with three kids under the age of four and most recently Samira. In several cases the moms were suffering post-partum depression, exhaustion and loneliness either because their families lived very far away and they had no support here in Canada, or because their husbands worked 24/7 just to make ends meet.” Beverly adds, “The family that most sticks out in my memory though is the one I worked with for four months last year. A newly bereaved husband of two sweet girls, who lost his wife just after his youngest daughter was born.”

“The reasons for volunteering are as diverse as the people we serve,” says Wirt. “Many are looking to give back to the community while some view volunteering as an opportunity to gain valuable Canadian work experience.” Students, she notes, often get the chance to put academic theory into action while others see it as a great way to improve their English skills.

Volunteers are further supported through a broad range of materials—including information on children’s developmental stages, activity ideas and communication tips—and through monthly training meetings.

VHA’s Parent Relief Volunteer Program is clearly an invaluable service to the at-risk Scarborough communities it serves. “It seems to me to be such a simple thing to be able to spend just three hours a week playing with kids, talking with moms, providing basic life advice and a bit of encouragement to families who just need to feel and believe that someone cares,” says Beverly.

For more information on VHA Home HealthCare’s Parent Relief Volunteer Program contact Roseanna Wirt a rwirt@vha.ca or 416 489-2500 ext 4327.

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