A year ago, Tracey’s Sumas Prairie home was flooded. The family, laundry, and storage rooms, home office and her son’s bedroom were all under 6.5 feet of water. The dairy farmer and mother of three was among thousands of Fraser Valley residents devastated by the events of last November.
“I’ve not let my brain go back down this road in a very long time, so the details are a little fuzzy,” Tracey says.
Shock, distress, anxiety, and changes in thought and behaviour patterns are just some of the many impacts that natural disasters have on the mental health of those affected, and when people suffer these kinds of traumas, communities are impacted too. Norms, values, and rituals that provide a sense of place and belonging are also disrupted.
After disaster strikes
When Fraser Valley communities were struck by flooding, United Way British Columbia’s Urgent Response initiative kicked into gear: supporting volunteers, facilitating the donations of goods and services, and stewarding dollars from donors to address important social needs from organizations. Through our Urgent Response initiative, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, SRY Rail Link, and the Washington Companies supported the United for the Fraser Valley: Community Re-builders Initiative—a special partnership to support residents in flood-affected areas of Sumas Prairie, Yarrow, Semá:th (Sumas) First Nation, and Skwah First Nation. The funding they provided addressed immediate needs like housing and food assistance, as well as trauma and mental health supports.
United Way provided funds to Gateway Community Church, which hired Tracey as a Crisis Response Coordinator. Her journey through clean-up, rebuilding, and recovery has been invaluable when it comes to helping community members struggling with mental health challenges.
Experience equals empathy
So, what does it mean to offer trauma and mental health support to those in crisis? One example is professional counselling services offered to farmers in Sumas Prairie and Yarrow through the United for the Fraser Valley: Community Re-builders Initiative and AgSafe BC. As important as the services themselves is the need to meet people where they are so they feel comfortable accepting the support. A friendly face and a common space can provide much-needed solace.
“Formal counseling is helpful for those who are open to attending sessions with a clinical counselor. For many this does not feel like a fit or there is a stigma towards asking for help when it comes to mental health. The flexibility of providing informal mental health support through community gatherings and peer support is vital to the well-being of residents,” says Alison Gutrath, Community Engagement Specialist with United Way British Columbia.
“Being a flood victim myself, I have personally experienced and heard over and over again how much people find encouragement and healing by sharing their experiences, especially with others who are going through the same journey of recovery and rebuilding,” Tracey says.
Along with the United Way-funded Mental Health Initiative, Gateway Church’s Crisis Response Centre includes The Pantry, which offers residents affected by flooding (and others referred by Abbotsford support organizations) a chance to receive needed food and personal items.
“The Pantry is a place where people come for some groceries that can help their grocery bill. But really, it has become a place where people know they are welcome and can get connected to other local resources. Working as a team with other frontline support people as well as local community agencies and organizations has been a real strength in the recovery process,” Tracey says.
“Having somebody who’s personally gone through it has been a benefit because they don’t feel like they need to explain what they’ve gone through.”
Local love in action
While one-on-one visits work best for some, community gatherings have also proven extremely beneficial. Thanks to Local Love microgrant funding from the United for the Fraser Valley: Community Rebuilder Initiative, numerous projects enhancing the ability of neighbours to take care of one another in their community have taken place. A group of Sumas Prairie Community Champions have planned and hosted events promoting mental health and wellbeing throughout the spring, summer and fall.
In May, 200 area residents took part in an evening of food, conversation, and sharing at Ripples Estate Winery, and in October approximately 400 people also attended Harvest sharefest, an event that saw dozens of local farms and businesses contribute produce, preserves, and items for give away. Smaller “Coffee & Chat” gatherings have also been supported and appreciated by the community.
“We had a morning and an evening session allowing flexible times for seniors, families with children, and various work schedules,” Tracey says. “The smaller group setting allowed for easy conversation and personal questions. Follow-up to concerns was possible as we heard updates to specific addresses.”
“Over and over again we have been told how much people enjoyed the time together with other flood- affected residents and how much they enjoyed the break,” Tracey says.
“It has been such a blessing to see people spend time together and hear the comments of deep gratitude, enjoyment of being with others who ’get it’ and the relief in learning of resources available they didn’t know about. You’re being built up in a positive environment and not really realizing how therapeutic that is. It just kind of naturally happens.”
“Creating opportunities for residents to gather allows them to feel less isolated and connected to others. They learn they are not alone and can count on their community to be by their side,” Alison says. This is also a great reminder that strengthening vital connections helps to build safer, healthier, more inclusive, and resilient communities for everyone.
United, more than ever
“As we see Ukrainian families settling here in Abbotsford after leaving their homeland because of the war, we can welcome them as they adjust to a new country and rebuild their lives. It’s a whole different level of crisis, but our hearts have become more empathetic to the sense of loss and displacement and allows us to reach out to support these new immigrants,” Tracey says
“The sense of ’togetherness’ and relationships growing with neighbours and community members is priceless and I believe is an incredibly important part of supporting mental health. As a community we have become more resilient because we’ve come together, it didn’t divide us.”
Let’s be here. For each other. Donate today. For tomorrow.