“It’s a circle,” says Jacqueline, Executive Director of Ladysmith Family & Friends (LaFF) when she’s describing the program. It’s an apt description of how participants, volunteers, staff, and children interact and flow through LaFF.
From the circle created within the hall with different activities, a shared pantry, clothing exchange, and meals, to the circle of support provided by the staff and volunteers, participants and children are held within a space of care and love. Many participants create their own circle, beginning their experience with LaFF as a parent and returning as a volunteer or staff member to support the next generation of parents.
Programs like LaFF rely on the circle of support from the community through funding and donations. It’s the continuation of a theme where everyone is supported. As Jacqueline says, “One of the things I love about United Way is that while we are wrapping a blanket of support around families, just that knowledge that the United Way and other foundations and funders have our backs and are wrapping that blanket of support around us, allows us to do what we need to.”
From humble beginnings
When Monica and a few other women founded LaFF some 30 years ago, it was out of a necessity to connect with others and find a support network.
“I loved my career as a childcare worker in the school when we lived in Vancouver,” says Monica. “When I got pregnant, all of a sudden that was gone, and I found myself at home with this crying baby. I had a lot of postpartum depression and I thought, you know, I’m not going to survive. My baby certainly is not going to survive if we’re shut up in the house.”
Monica’s need for support led her to a family resource program in her neighbourhood which she loved. When she and her husband moved to the Island and she became pregnant with their second child, she attempted to find a similar program in the community. “At that point, Ladysmith was a very sleepy little town. It didn’t have family resource programs or LaFF or anything like that,” she explains. “So, I thought, I know how to do this, and I grabbed these women with strollers off the street and asked them if they wanted to start a family resource program.
Altogether, six women banded together to create a support network operating out of a small portable at the primary school. Through donations they were able to stock the space with books and toys while volunteers ran the program.
From what Monica describes as its “very humble beginnings,” the LaFF program has grown to meet the various needs of its participants and the community; however, it has never lost sight of its core vision of supporting family and friends.
A circle of support when it’s needed
For mothers like Michelle and Taryn, the impact is felt throughout the years, even during some of the most challenging and difficult times in their lives. “I started coming when my oldest was a baby and they got to watch him grow up and age out,” says Taryn. “And then I had my daughter and they got to watch her grow up. And when I had a miscarriage while my husband was away working, I came here because I had nobody.”
The support and care Taryn received during a traumatic time was invaluable, continuing through into COVID when LaFF held drive-thrus in their parking lot. When she became pregnant again with her youngest child, everyone celebrated with her.
“I think having a judgment free place is essential,” says Michelle. “We’re so hard on ourselves as new parents and we feel judgment really easily. We often feel we’re not doing a good enough job. We want to do the best we can because we love our kids so much and to come to a place where there’s other parents who are also doing the best they can, and to have staff and the resources, is championing that experience of parenthood in a positive way.”
To meeting the necessities and beyond
“Food is our love language here. It’s foundational to the program,” says Jacqueline. “It’s one of those equalizing things.”
Jacqueline sees food as a way for people to get engaged either though preparing it, sharing a recipe, or talking around the dinner table. “We do a lot of chopping, creating, and teaching,” she says.
Each day it runs, the program provides fresh and homemade food for participants and families. During COVID, when they couldn’t gather inside, food took on a different theme. “We would do special things like make a spaghetti meal, so everyone would get a bag with everything you needed to make spaghetti.”
For Taryn, this service was vital. “I live out in the middle of nowhere so it got really lonely. They would do a craft package for the kids and meals in a bag that you would sign up for in half hour slots. You could just basically stand in the drive outside of your car and just talk to them, which I really appreciated.”
Food is also more than providing a meal in the morning. “Jenny’s Pantry,” named after a grant writer for LaFF, is a communal pantry that gives participants the opportunity to take what they need but also donate what they can. The pantry has expanded over the years to include non-food items, like diapers and wipes as well.
Strengthening community bonds
“The impact that LaFF has on the community and to the client…it gives meaning to so many people,” says Kelsey. “It gives support, wellness help, and friendship to people who are alone or need connection.”
Retired volunteers, like Diana, find meaning in spending time with the families and children. For mothers like Taryn, it’s a safe place where she can access resources and connect with other parents and strengthen the vital connections in her life. These bonds permeate outwards into the community and connect them to a larger circle of support.
Read more stories about how United Way BC is making a difference in your communities through supporting child and youth programming.