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19th of October 2018

Canada



Downtown Eastside mentors help new moms recovering from substance abuse

Pregnant women and new mothers recovering from substance abuse are partnered with mentors, who offer advice and guidance.

Sarah Van Balkom’s emotions are raw as she talks about her remarkable journey from Downtown Eastside drug addict to a struggling young woman with a new baby to today’s confident and proud mother of six-year-old Abilyn.

She refers to her daughter as her life-saving baby, whose unexpected arrival led her out of her drug addiction and into a healthier, more stable life.

“She is happy and healthy and thriving. She is so independent. She is in Grade 1 and this year I just saw her bloom as a person,” Van Balkom smiles.

The journey was not easy or simple, but the life lessons she learned along the way she now shares with other mothers in similar situations in a peer mentorship program run by the YWCA in the Downtown Eastside. Pregnant women and new mothers recovering from substance abuse who live in the Y’s Crabtree Corner housing on East Hastings are partnered with former residents, like Van Balkom, who provide advice and tell them about community supports.

“Just to be with them … if they have to see housing advocates or go to court, doctor’s appointments. I’ve done dishes, I’ve watched babies, I’ve changed diapers, I’ve cooked meals. Just to be there and show them that somebody cares,” said Van Balkom.

“When you have a baby, especially when you are coming out of addiction, you feel potentially very judged. So having somebody by your side who has been there, been through it, and sees you for who you are — you don’t have that self-doubt as much and it can really boost your confidence.”

Crabtree, which offers 12 rooms and many other services for marginalized women and families, started its Peer Mentorship Program in 2005, but it has run only sporadically over the years because of a lack of funding. An anonymous $4.25-million donation to the YWCA this spring, though, threw a financial lifeline to the program, said Grace Tait, Crabtree’s associate director.

Right now, eight Crabtree residents are linked with mentors assisting them with reaching goals, keeping custody of their children, and reducing their social isolation. Often the mentors become the family the new mothers are missing, or never had.

“Finding out what it means to be a family — sometimes that’s a really new thing, and it may be the first time that they are ever learning about what that is, and how they can create a family for themselves,” said Tait. “Sometimes you just need someone there to help you get through those tough situations and the moms genuinely want to work at building better futures for their children.”

The vast majority of the mentors and those who have been mentored have custody of their children, she said.

“We are all extended family helping to keep children safe in this community, so that they are thriving and we are doing all that we can to help them be the most successful and fun and loved.”

The mentorship program didn’t have any funding in 2012 when a pregnant Van Balkom, then 30, came to Crabtree Corner in the middle of her deepest struggle with addiction and “feeling pretty hopeless.” She had been living alone in a Downtown Eastside SRO after fleeing an abusive relationship, and believes her transition at Crabtree would have been faster and less scary if she’d had a dedicated mentor.

“Even though you know lots of other mothers have the same issues, you are so in your own bubble, and so scared to trust people … It is hard to open up. So it took me a long time to feel comfortable,” she said. “But if I had that program, I think most likely I would have felt a lot more secure and at home.”

To be a good mentor, she has learned to balance holding someone’s hand to make them feel better with offering gentle guidance to help get them back on track. “The women I’ve helped, they have all gone on to secure their own housing, they all have their children, they are strong, caring, amazing women,” said Van Balkom, 36.

The mentors and their mentees meet formally once at week at Crabtree, where there are often guest speakers who will talk about such things as preschool, nutrition and housing. They also meet once a month with a staff coordinator to go over the mother’s goals and her progress.

The program typically lasts six months, and includes teaching the women about budgeting, bank accounts and planning.

Vicki-Lee Gurney, 39, has mentored four Crabtree residents over the last few years. She became the voice they trusted, as they were often wary of authority figures after years of contact with health, justice and social service workers.

“It is personal, because they are going to be walking in the same shoes that you walked in. And you can make it a lot easier by going to appointments with them. Or to let them call in the middle of the night: ‘My baby’s at this temperature,’” she said.

“It gives us a chance to give back and to give our knowledge and our personal life experience with being a recovering addict and a new mother in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. Someone to walk with, someone to talk with.”

One of the women who Gurney has mentored once phoned in the middle of the night to ask her to watch her daughter while she was going to have a new baby, but complications kept the mother and infant in the hospital for several days. Gurney phoned the mother’s social worker and arranged to keep the little girl, which prevented her from having to go into temporary foster care.

Gurney could relate to this new mom. She was able to keep her newborn five years ago because she was living at Crabtree, which provided the housing and supervision required at the time by social services.

Crabtree provided the helping hand she needed to leave behind her life on the streets.

“I switched a switch. That life is over and now I’m a mom,” recalled Gurney, whose son Brandon-Lee is now in kindergarten.

There was no mentorship program when she lived at Crabtree for 18 months, and she believes she could have left sooner had it existed. “I would have had someone show me the ropes a bit more, encouraging me to do it faster.”

Melissa Tom, 32, has been a mentor three times — an experience that allowed her to show other women where to find resources, but also taught her something about herself.

“It actually guided me to get my first job in the Downtown Eastside doing support work. It was a stepping stone for me,” she said.

Tom had two of her three children while living at Crabtree, and endured court battles to keep custody of all three. She had struggled with addiction and homelessness, but is in a more stable place today — and can share her successes with the new mothers she is helping.

“The ladies were able to connect with me and can understand that I had been in their shoes dealing with recovery and going through the daily routine of being a parent.”

One of the Crabtree residents that Tom was mentoring would phone her regularly in the beginning, often every two hours, day and night, afraid of relapsing and returning to drug use. Social services was threatening to take her new baby away, but she stayed sober and was able to keep her child. That woman went on to have more children and is still doing well, Tom recalled.

And that is the most compelling part of the program, she said: to give the women the skills and the confidence to be good mothers, and a safe place where they can learn to raise happy, healthy children.

“The most important thing is keeping the moms with their babies because, more often than not, you see moms (In the Downtown Eastside) without their babies because of the lack of housing,” Tom said.

Both Tom and Van Balkom are passionate about supporting efforts to end poverty, as the YWCA reports that the average single mother living at Crabtree Corner must support her family on an annual income of less than $10,000. This is one of the key issues the mentors and the mothers discuss: how to save money by buying food in bulk and finding other good deals.

“One of the biggest struggles is poverty, and figuring out how to use the system so that you are not hungry and you have everything you need for your child,” Van Balkom said.

Now that Abilyn has successfully started Grade 1, Van Balkom is looking forward to finding out who she will mentor next at Crabtree, knowing she can provide that person with unbiased guidance that could make a big difference in her baby’s future.

“Having somebody there who you don’t have to explain (your background) to, who already knows, who has no judgment and who wants to support you for who you are is crucial,” she said.

“(Mentoring) has given me confidence, it’s given me a feeling like I can help the girls here, not just with my story but with my experience. And that if I don’t, somehow I’m letting myself down. So that is my driving force now.”

lculbert@postmedia.com

Twitter: @loriculbert

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