Top-down challenge inspired CAMH staff
Sometimes, the best ideas really do come down from the top. That is certainly the case in the latest staff-led initiative at CAMH to finance and sponsor a Syrian refugee family this year.
The effort, which involves the raising of $ 45,000 from individuals within the organization, was the brainchild of Kelly Meighen, the chair of the hospital’s board of trustees.
“She challenged us and said, ‘ we should be doing this. CAMH believes in social change, and if we don’t get involved in this, who else will?’ ” recalls Janet Mawhinney, director of community engagement and planning with CAMH and a member of the core group of trustees and employees involved in the effort.
Of course, with Ottawa’s ambitious target to bring in 25,000 refugees t his year, many individuals and organizations will be getting involved. But that does not t ake away f rom t he undertaking. Sponsorship is a serious commitment. The group, which includes CAMH social workers, nurses and occupational therapists, is taking on responsibility for a family for a full year, a span over which it must assist with everything from helping those newcomers figure out where to shop, live, get medical care, pray and, eventually, to work.
“All t he sponsorship groups are legally and financially obligated for one year, so it is a pretty big commitment,” she says. “I have to say that I’m really proud of our group but I’m also incredibly proud of the number of people in Toronto, in Ontario and in Canada who are stepping up and doing this. It is pretty epic.”
In less than two months the organization is close to raising its $ 45,000 fundi ng t arget, but now t he hard part begins, explains Freddy Lara, a social worker in CAMH’s complex mental illness program. “One of the things we are going to really have to plan for is the budgeting component” when it comes to stretching that $ 45,000 over a year’s time.
“What we are planning on doing with that money is getting them housing, furniture, clothing, groceries and other miscellaneous expenses — and helping them understand their options and manage the budget,” he says.
Lara has some unique qualifications for this key role — in addition to his social work expertise, he worked f or a bank and brings extensive experience from the financial sector. “Understanding a person first is the way I approach helping my clients at CAMH. It’s the same for my role on the refugee initiative.”
CAMH, which is partnering with Lifeline Syria in its sponsoring effort, will soon know more about the family it will be supporting.
CAMH’s sponsorship team does have some valuable insider knowledge of just what kind of experience and transition the sponsored family will go through. Lara’s family came to Canada as refugees in 1982 during the Salvadorian civil war. His family was sponsored by a Quaker group and he arrived in Canada with two brothers, two sisters and his mother — and the clothes on their backs. “My mom basically had to leave the country with one suitcase for the five of us.”
They joined his father who had previously established refugee status in Canada after narrowly escaping death in El Salvador.
He notes that there are a number of employees at CAMH with similar backgrounds. “We have been writing our stories and putting them on our internal website and sharing the experiences with immigration, being refugees and adapting to Canadian society and culture.
“It is really inspiring from that perspective to hear the stories, to see people succeed, to see people integrate, providing a sense of hope,” he says. “When people are stuck in these situations, when you hear these hor- rible stories, you can’t help but feel sometimes a bit hopeless. There is hope, people can rebuild their lives, can recover and heal.”
“My parents gave back in many ways after coming to Canada,” Lara says. “As a young child in Toronto, I remember our house was so busy with many people from El Salvador staying with us. My parents were helping them out by giving them a place to stay when they arrived in Toronto. My mom established a cleaning business and my dad worked in construction. Today, my parents are both doing well in retirement. There is no question they see themselves as Canadian — Canada is their home.”
Canada as a country also has a long history of providing a welcome refuge to those displaced by war and oppression, as Lara’s experience demonstrates. “It is part of our culture and history. The history of people coming to t his country, building new opportunities. That is a big part of the Canadian story.”
Social worker Freddy Lara brings a variety of valuable life skills to CAMH.