HSAA women help Calgary women & families in need

For a moment, imagine you are a young woman with little to no income, leaving the hospital with your newborn baby on a Friday and you can’t access any community resources, to pick up diapers or formula, until the following Monday. Leaving the hospital as a new mom or parent with no access to provide for your baby, potentially for a couple days, is a stressful and scary scenario to play out in your head.  It may sound like a scenario that would be one in a million, but situations where women and families are in immediate need occur more often than you might assume.

Social workers are some of the health-care professionals on the frontlines at hospitals seeing stories like this play out. HSAA members Corinna Fitch and Judy Hebert are two social workers in Calgary who recognized there was a need within maternity/child units at hospitals to help support moms in need or in crisis. “It became really obvious that we were missing a huge financial piece,” said Judy, who works at Peter Lougheed Centre.

They wanted to take action to help families facing gaps in the system, so they decided to reach out to their union.

Corinna and Judy got to work and submitted a proposal to HSAA’s new Women’s Committee for support and requested funding for a pilot project that would help address this issue. The plan outlined in the proposal includes purchasing a supply of gift cards that would be provided to families in need to help them purchase up to 50 dollars in diapers and/or formula from President’s Choice retail locations.

With the support of the Women’s Committee, HSAA’s Board of Directors approved their proposal, and the group was granted $9,600 in funding to purchase gift cards divided between four major sites in Calgary: Peter Lougheed Centre, South Health Campus, Foothills Medical Centre and Rockyview General Hospital.

Corinna and Judy noted that while the need to help bridge the gap for families requiring this type of support is a systemic issue that is historic, the need has greatly increased due to the impacts of the pandemic.

“We know our province is having tough economic times and it trickles down to families, and it trickles down to newborns,” says Corinna, an HSAA member and social worker at Peter Lougheed Centre. “We see our patients getting more and more discouraged — financially exhausted and depleted. This couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Social workers hit the ground running once the proposal was approved, working hard to determine need through a diligent screening process. Before being eligible to receive gift cards, patients undergo a financial assessment, which considers their income and financial obligations as well as immediate crises and exceptional circumstances.

Several families who received support through this initiative were low income, single income, on EI or subsidized income such as AISH. Additionally, many families were also using or supplementing with formula due to complications with breastfeeding, which is an added cost for families already struggling financially.

“[The gift cards] are meant to be a short-term bridge until we can secure alternative resources, so we do follow up with other community resources because fifty dollars is not going to go very far,” says Sherry Soltys, social worker at Peter Lougheed Centre. “But it certainly provides a huge relief to parents. There’s such an appreciation when they receive this card – it’s huge.”

Each of the stories about the women and families that were able to receive support from this pilot are unique.

One couple worked in the restaurant industry and were impacted by COVID this year. The father was stressed and concerned about finding work to provide for his partner and their new baby. While in hospital, the mom ended up needing to supplement with formula.

“You could see him spinning, thinking about all these financial costs. So, I came in with a layette and the gift card for the formula, and this dad just broke down crying and was so appreciative,” said Linsday Allan, social worker at Foothills Medical Centre. “Just to have a little something to start, so he could go home, settle into his role as a new dad and not have to rush off from the hospital worrying…It stuck with me seeing the dad’s response.”

Another young mom, from a poor family, had an undiagnosed pregnancy. A family, brand new to the country, that wasn’t yet settled, delivered their baby at 32 weeks; there are NICU admissions with underlying medical conditions that require specific kinds of formula; a mother who was discharged then readmitted had one healthy baby at home and another in NICU who needed to supplement; a young mother not yet eligible for subsidized benefit(s) had the single source of income abandon the household; and many more, which would extend this article into a short novel.

While these stories both share themes while remaining unique in their circumstances, there is one thing they all have in common: the immense gratitude and relief at receiving a gift card for diapers or formula. As Corinna mentions, “you can make referrals to resources, but to have something in [their] hand and to be able to provide for [their] baby right now is huge.”

The pilot project has also provided some relief for social workers and other health-care professionals working on these four mat/child units.

“We talk about how it impacts the families, but it also has been able to impact us as social workers to actually have a solution, have an option to support these families, which is amazing,” said Tara Bramfield, social worker at the Foothills Medical Centre.

Sarah Tatz, social worker at Rockyview General Hospital, shared that “new parents who are having difficulty meeting their basic needs are often anxious when a social worker comes to talk to them… To be able to give them a gift card [helps] make their experience with social work, as a profession, positive, and hopefully will encourage them to reach out for help when they need it without as much fear of negative repercussions.”

Thinking back on submitting the proposal to kick-off this project, now that it is underway, Corinna said the response and support from the union has been mind-blowing. “I can’t tell you how touched and overwhelmed I was. I was wowed.”

Faika Satterthwaite, Chair of the Women’s Committee, said that the committee was happy to help support these members in their work on this proposal and the project.

“We knew from Corinna and Judy that this is an immense need that needs to be recognized and assisted. The committee discussed this at length, and this is something we’d love to see provincially, but we knew we had to start, assess and figure out the effectiveness of it,” said Faika. “It gives my heart such warmth to hear the progress of the project. This is just the beginning.”

While the project isn’t winding down just yet, as social workers continue to use their remaining half of the gift cards, there is already an overwhelming feeling of pride and gratitude from both sides, which is telling of the success and impact of this initiative.

“I’m happy to see our union dues working for us in a real tangible sense,” said Judy. “It’s a little miracle to give to families in the short-term. The small things in life provide such an impact.”