Top-down chal­lenge in­spired CAMH staff

National Post (Latest Edition) - - MOST ADMIRED CORPORATE CULTURES -

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.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH COUR­TESY OF CAMH

So­cial worker Freddy Lara brings a va­ri­ety of valu­able

life skills to CAMH.

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