United Way programs helped Cindy find purpose and happiness in life.
Cindy McDonald can still taste the charcoal, and she can still remember the bitter question when she opened her eyes to see she was still, somehow, alive.
Cindy brought her story of recovery after a failed suicide attempt to 300 City of Edmonton employees gathered together at the Central Lions Recreation Centre to help kick off the City’s 2018 United Way campaign. She told them how, stalked by dark thoughts after being diagnosed with severe post-partum depression, she had overdosed on medication one night.
She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She said, “That’s it, I guess.” She went back to bed, lay down next to her husband, and waited. She woke up looking at a team of health care workers.
“I was alive and I was angry,” she said.
Cindy got help. She learned she was not alone. After she received the support she needed she then started giving back, helping on a suicide distress line in Edmonton that “wouldn't stop ringing.”
She told the crowd: “If I had known about that line before, I could have told people how I was feeling.”
Cindy made a crucial point during her talk: being a wife, a mother of two, a daughter, a soccer and hockey mom, none of these social roles she played in family and society guaranteed she would actually feel safe and secure and together with others. What helped were the resources provided that took invisible mental health as seriously as visible physical health.
The help got her to the point where she could now look out a room of strangers at the City of Edmonton and say: “God doesn't give you another day because you need it. You have another day because someone needs you.”
Jessica Monk, the City’s 2018 United Way Campaign Chair, told the audience she understands United Way as an extension of her work as a City of Edmonton team member. “As City of Edmonton employees, we have made a commitment to serving our neighbours,” Jessica said. “There is nothing left to do but give.”
By Glenn Kubish, Director of Communications, City of Edmonton
This article originally appeared in the City of Edmonton’s staff newsletter in September 2018.
Show Your Local Love.
One in five youth in Edmonton does not complete high school. For many local students, the goal of graduation is out of reach because of personal or family related challenges. Furthermore, parents who don’t complete high school are most likely to have children who follow this pattern, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. United Way aims to break that cycle.
When families are struggling, they often lack funds or connections to get the help they need. United Way brings together programs and services to help socially vulnerable children achieve their best. By taking care of critical needs now, we stand a far better chance of helping students get through tough times, build skills and set them up for poverty-free futures.
United Way envisions a community where every student has the opportunity to complete high school with pride – paving the way for post-secondary and career opportunities, allowing them to reach their full potential and live healthy and fulfilling lives. Students who are educated, healthy, and supported can transform their communities and pass on the benefits to their children, and to their children’s children.
Roughly 20 years ago, education consultant Sandra Woitas was the principal at Norwood Elementary School in Edmonton. She identified many needs in the school which her teachers did not have the expertise or time to address. So she connected with United Way and some of its funded partners to bring student services directly into the school.
As the former Executive Director of the Edmonton Public School Foundation, Woitas then helped create a partnership with United Way to fill in the gaps of resources to help keep at-risk kids in school.
“Classrooms are becoming increasingly complex and students’ needs are incredibly diverse,” shares Woitas. “The complexities we face in education demand collaboration.”
By providing wrap-around services, United Way helps solve the complex problems experienced by vulnerable students and their families. Thanks to the help of donors, United Way invests in a range of coordinated supports such as nutritious food programs, reading and writing coaches, in-school mentors and counsellors, after-school programs, and even supports for a student’s family.
After almost dropping out, Emily got the supports she needed to graduate high school with pride. Click below to see her story.
Show Your Local Love.
It’s well known that our genetic makeup plays a role in how our brains develop, but we are just learning how much our childhood experiences impact how our brains function as adults. A recent study on brain development called The Brain Story found that if a child’s brain is being built in an environment with toxic stresses, it can have a lasting impact. This helps explain the fact that a child who grows up with a parent who is struggling with addiction is eight times more likely to develop an addiction as an adult.
David Rust, the Project Lead for the Community Mental Health Action Plan, has seen firsthand how addiction and toxic stress during childhood can be linked. David has spent the vast majority of his 38 year career working in the community to help local youth. Throughout that time he has witnessed gaps in community supports for people dealing with childhood trauma and abuse.
The Community Mental Health Action plan is working to fill those gaps by building partnerships across the province, including with United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, a founding member of the initiative. United Way currently provides vision and strategy guidance, mobilization of funding, and co-chairs the work with the City of Edmonton. The plan aims to maximize collective resources, leverage opportunities to fill gaps in service, and foster innovative approaches to integrating services.
“By working closely with community members who struggle with mental health or addiction problems, we are learning from their experiences to make services more accessible and ultimately more successful,” explains Rust.
To learn more about the powerful role of relationships and childhood experiences on the developing brain, community members can attend a Brain Architecture Game at United Way. The Brain Architecture Game is an experiential tool to learn about early brain development – what promotes it, what derails it, and what the consequences are for individuals and society. New Brain Game dates will be added in early 2019.
United Way, along with its partners, is working to break the cycle of addiction through early identification and intervention while streamlining support networks in order to make them easier to navigate. United Way also funds a variety of programs that provide a safety net for those seeking addiction support and services. Free programs like the Armoury Resource Centre offer addiction counselling for youth, and all age drop-in counselling is available at various locations throughout the Edmonton area. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can dial 211 to be connected to local services.
Travis was in a battle with addiction that left him without a home. Luckily, he got help from a United Way supported program that helped him recover. Now he is helping others. See Travis’s story in the video below.
Show Your Local Love.
Financial Empowerment has been on United Way’s radar since 2006, when we started exploring financial literacy and asset building as mechanisms to support families living in low income. United Way and the City of Edmonton have been part of the Edmonton Financial Empowerment Collaborative (EFEC) from the get-go. Our Financial Empowerment framework (EARN, SAVE, BUILD) speaks about the importance of applying multiple interventions to help boost household income, reduce debt, increase savings and grow assets. EFEC and United Way have adapted Prosper Canada's Financial Empowerment framework to improve the financial security of people who are financially vulnerable through:
Financial Information and Education -Tools and training for front line service providers and onward delivery of tailored, high quality financial information and education
Financial Coaching - Free financial coaching/counselling to help clients build and follow a personal financial plan that will enable them to increase savings, reduce debt, build their credit score and invest in their future
Boosting Income (through tax filing and help accessing benefits) - Expanding access to free community tax clinics and offering screening and assistance to help clients access income benefits they are eligible for but not receiving
Assisting Families to Open RESPs and RDSPs - Informing families about the benefits of saving for their children's education and assisting them to open RESPs/RDSPs and to access related savings grants and incentives
Facilitating Access to Basic Banking - Helping low-income people to open bank accounts and access financial services that support effective money management (e.g. direct deposit) and reduce reliance on payday loan services
In 2012, we launched the Empower U Building Confident Futures which is a poverty reduction initiative aiming to improve the economic security of individuals living with low income. The program supports primarily women who may have experienced personal traumas – historical and intergenerational, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, poverty and/or involvement with the justice system. This program provides financial literacy education and 2:1 matched savings.
In 2016, United Way launched the Financial Pathways Collaborative, which is a partnership with eight financial institutions, United Way, E4C, and City of Edmonton that collaborates to provide financial literacy education to individuals and families living with low income in the Alberta Capital Region. The Each One Teach One program was born from this unique collaboration, this program provides financial education to community members and help build their knowledge, skills and confidence to make the right financial decisions for themselves. All sessions are FREE and facilitated by trained professionals from local financial institutions.
e4c Make Tax Time Pay (MTTP) funded by United Way since 2015 is a free tax preparation program that files taxes for people with low income all year round. In 2017, there were 31 MTTP sites, 5,370 tax returns were filed and 4,230 unique participants were served. In addition, the anticipated refund was $1.7M, anticipated GST $1.8M and anticipated Canada Child Tax Benefit $8M. Over $11.5M money back in the pockets of low income individuals and families.
United Way of the Alberta Capital Region is proud to partner with government, businesses and local agencies and will continue to do so to address economic insecurity and financial instability for low income households. If you would like more information, please contact the department of Community Building & Investment at 780-990-1000.
Homelessness is #UNIGNORABLE
Poverty takes many forms. Sometimes it’s an empty lunchbox, sometimes it’s having to choose between filling a prescription or paying a utility bill, and sometimes, poverty becomes so extreme that it results in someone becoming homeless. Currently, roughly 1,700 people are experiencing homelessness in Edmonton*.
Attaining and maintaining quality, safe and affordable housing is a challenge for many people living in poverty. Shelter is by far the biggest expense for people living with low income, with some people spending 30 percent or more of their total household income on housing costs.
United Way of the Alberta Capital Region envisions a community where people are able to access and maintain their basic needs. We know that individuals thrive when they have a stable and safe home. United Way helps create a network of community supports to provide comfort, dignity and opportunities to improve housing stability.
Thanks to the help of donors, United Way invests in several programs and initiatives that help people access and maintain safe and secure housing. These include care kits of hygiene items, a shelter for those fleeing domestic violence, emergency response funds to prevent evictions, welcome home kits of household goods for newly housed individuals, and connection to additional support services and benefits. United Way also works collaboratively with our partners to advance systems and policy change to provide stable housing.
Every individual is unique and no story is the same, but many people experiencing homelessness are also battling debilitating issues such as mental illness, addiction and trauma. In addition to housing supports, investments are made in services such as distress lines, counselling, and financial literacy to address both the urgent and long-term needs of the whole individual.
After many years of living on the streets, Mike received a range of supports that helped end his homelessness. Click below to see his story.
Source: Edmonton Social Planning Council’s 2018 Tracking the Trends Report
Show Your Local Love.
Mental Health is #UNIGNORABLE
United Way is taking action to support community members
with mental health issues
Many of us regularly make choices about food and exercise in order to maintain our physical health, but it is easy to forget that taking care of our mental health is just as important. With 1 in 5 Canadians personally experiencing a mental health problem or illness in their lifetime, this issue is not to be ignored. That translates to roughly 260,000 local people.
Cindy McDonald, an employee with United Way, feels like she has a very fortunate life. However this mother of two did not always feel so lucky. After giving birth to her second child, she began to feel depressed and withdrawn from friends and family. Symptoms like this can often be brushed off as the “baby blues.” After a near life altering decision, McDonald was eventually diagnosed with severe postpartum depression.
“Mental health was treated like a taboo topic 20 years ago,” McDonald recalls. She describes the lack of understanding as a serious roadblock to her health. Over time her untreated depression got so severe that she became suicidal.
When Cindy found herself with a knife in her hand determined to end her life, she received professional intervention that saved her.
After successfully completing a patient care program at one of the local hospitals, McDonald wanted to channel her experiences with mental health to help others. She spent time volunteering at the Distress Line in Edmonton, coaching and listening to people in their time of despair. McDonald remembers that the number of calls was very demanding and that many people just needed someone to listen.
United Way supports mental health programs that provide a safety net for individuals in their time of need such as the Distress Line, a 24/7 resource for people who are feeling overwhelmed, experiencing abuse or suicidal thoughts. The distress line receives approximately 1,300 calls a month and 30 per cent of callers are in crisis. If you or someone you know is in need of help, please dial 780-482-HELP to access the line.
Additionally, United Way helps fund various counselling services with local agencies which are accessible through 211 and is a partner in the Community Mental Health Action Plan. The goal of the plan is to maximize collective resources, leverage opportunities to respond to existing gaps in service, and foster innovative approaches to integrate supports and services.
Because of programs and initiatives like these, people in need are being heard and connected with the supports that can help them overcome their challenges. By allowing for open conversation around a once unapproachable topic, United Way and its supporters are helping to create an inclusive culture to let others know they are not alone.
“I’m grateful that I got a chance to be a healthy mom for my kids,” says Cindy. “And with the supportive resources available now, I know more people will continue to get the help they need.”
Show Your Local Love.
Domestic Violence is #UNIGNORABLE
The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics reports that Edmonton is home to the third highest number of domestic homicides, family violence, and violence against seniors among all the provinces. Not only does domestic violence happen to women, but also to children, men, transgender individuals, immigrants, and seniors of all backgrounds. An alarming 8,500 domestic violence calls are received by the Edmonton Police Service each year. So how do we address domestic violence in our community?
The first step is to talk about it.
Perri Garvin, the Labour Programs Coordinator for United Way, has devoted much of his career to the Labour Community Advocate Program. Graduates of the program offer guidance, referrals and information to co-workers about problems related to drug or alcohol abuse, gambling, housing, personal finance, and domestic violence.
The newest United Way initiative that Garvin has helped to spearhead is called Cut It Out. The project educates hair stylists about the warning signs of abuse and how to connect their clients with services. Warning signs of abuse include missing appointments, withdrawing from conversation, unexplained bruising or scrapes, signs of depression and anxiety, and pain in the head or neck at the shampoo sink. The trained stylists are able to ask questions such as “Are you or your children in danger?” and “Would you be interested in hearing about the services that are available to you?”
Why hair dressers? Clients tend to build trust and a relationship with their stylist over the course of their recurring visits, leading them to feel comfortable enough to open up. Isolation from friends and family may be a burdening factor in abuse and victims may feel they have no one to confide in. Garvin advises that the words “I believe you” are powerful and help victims feel that someone is actually listening to them.
The second step is to educate yourself and others about local services.
United Way invests in community initiatives that provide those affected by family violence with counselling, safe spaces, and escape action plans. 211 another United Way supported service connects individuals experiencing abuse immediately to the social services available to them. Through education and spreading awareness about the unignorable issue of domestic violence, we are working together with our partners to build a safer community.
Humaira was in an abusive marriage when she immigrated to Canada. With her courage and the help of United Way funded programs, she was able to receive the support needed to escape her abuser.
Show Your Local Love.
Unemployment is #UNIGNORABLE
People living in low-income are the most vulnerable to employment loss, unemployment and under-employment. Many face barriers to employment such as limited education levels, high costs of transportation, lack of childcare, and a lack of required job skills.
Last year, more than 68,000 people were unemployed in Edmonton.
Unfavorable economic conditions due to factors such as low oil prices have had a detrimental effect on the local unemployment rate. At 6.6 per cent, Edmonton’s unemployment rate is above the national average and last year was at its highest since 1996 according to the Edmonton Social Planning Council’s Tracking the Trends 2018 report.
In a recent survey of Edmonton Food Bank clients, 78 per cent reported being unemployed. Forty-five per cent of clients who reported being unemployed had been out of work for more than three years. Of those who were working almost 60 per cent had only part time, casual or seasonal work.
Seven out of 10 respondents indicated their income as being less than $25,000. More than half of respondents reported that they would not need the food bank if they could increase their income by $500 a month.
Thanks to the help of donors, United Way invests in programs and initiatives that focus on increasing an individual’s capacity to obtain and retain employment that provides for basic economic security. This includes programs to increase employment readiness for those over represented in poverty, such as Indigenous populations, newcomers and women. United Way also supports employment opportunities for youth and people with disabilities.
Helping individuals and families attain employment, boost their household income through higher wages and government benefits, increase their savings, invest in their children’s future, and access mainstream banking are effective ways to make sure everyone in our community thrives. Examples of United Way supported services addressing these issues include linkage to education savings and bonds programs, literacy and math tutoring, language and computer classes, resume support, and providing equipment such as work boots.
Additionally, United Way works collaboratively to advance systems and policy change to promote a sustainable income for individuals.
Learn more about United Way’s work.
Zoe was struggling to find employment until she connected with a United Way program that helped her unlock new opportunities. Click below to see Zoe’s story.
United Way’s #UNIGNORABLE campaign draws on a long tradition of art for social change. United Ways across the country partnered with Pantone® to create a signature colour to help raise awareness about local issues. Multiple artists have also contributed to bringing this campaign to life, both nationally and locally.