December 23, 2011

Group of professional mothers reach out; Friendship circle works with inner-city teachers to identify those in need of help

By Gerry Bellett

A month ago Dr. Joanne Roussy of the University of B.C.’s medical school would not have known how to negotiate the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside, but here on a wet Tuesday morning she was getting the hang of it.

Navigating was Julia Morrison, a Scottish nurse, who apologized for having a bad sense of direction but between them they were delivering an assortment of clothes, furniture, gifts, and what was most precious of all – fellowship – to mothers in dire need of another mother’s help.

Drs. Joanne Roussy (front left) and Barbara Fitzgerald (behind Roussy ) help out families like Tracey Johnson (right ) and her five children, from front: Joanna, Caitlin, Megan, Louise and Joey (photo: Nick Procaylo, PNG)

First stop was Franklin Street, and a load of kitchen chairs, clothes and Christmas presents were delivered from the back of Roussy’s family van up the stone steps of a dilapidated house incongruously attached to the side of a commercial building in the middle of what is an industrial area by day and a “kiddie stroll” for teen-age prostitutes by night.

Roussy used her feet to measure out the kitchen whose yellowing, plastered walls were covered with messages scratched in ink or pencil, telephone numbers, names, lists – hundreds of entries – making the place an enormous doodle pad.

“I think we can get a small table in here,” she told the mom.

“We’ll get one. Is there anything else you need? Oh, we’ll get someone to paint the walls.”

No, no, said the mom, she’ll paint them.

Another stop was a few blocks away where a woman and her two sons live in a bleak rooming house in a suite at the top of a long, narrow staircase which also acts as the hallway for the suites opening straight on to it from the right and left.

This mom wasn’t home but the two boys were so the women shepherded them into the van and tried to figure out where the nearest Costco was so they could fill their empty cupboards with food.

Roussy joked her husband will start divorce proceedings once he sees the size of last month’s Costco bills.

“I think I’ve spent about six or seven thousand so far,” said Roussy; it’s obvious she can’t keep that up for much longer.

“Actually, he’s very sweet. He said he’d give us $25,000, but I said, ‘That’s the money we need to send one of the kids to university.’ So he said maybe he could do it over two years.”

The “us” refers to Mom-to-Mom, a movement of professional women – mainly from the UBC area – that was formed with the intention of helping mothers living amid the kind of poverty that must be seen to be believed.

The inspiration behind Mom-to-Mom is Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald, assistant dean of UBC’s Faculty of Medicine. She is a developmental pediatrician who has operated an outreach program for 15 years in the Downtown Eastside.

“No matter how hard I worked to help children, their basic needs weren’t being taken care of. I couldn’t put food on the table, buy them a winter coat – it was heart-wrenching. So many gaps that I couldn’t fill,” she explained.

Three years ago she set up a project mobilizing the services of medical students to fill in some of those gaps by helping parents access family doctors, hearing or vision tests, showing them how to use libraries, where to find playgrounds.

But there were gaps that couldn’t be filled by med students.

It took the publication of Admiral Seymour elementary teacher Carrie Gelson’s now famous letter in The Vancouver Sun for Fitzgerald to mobilize mothers to fill those gaps.

At the time of the letter’s appearance, Fitzgerald was lecturing at UBC on marginalized populations and what she was seeing in the Downtown East-side. Roussy was in the audience and emailed asking if she could help.

Fitzgerald then met a mother of five in dire straits. She had lost her student funding and would have to wait three months to qualify for welfare. All she had was $50 and six people to feed.

“I emailed Joanne that night – some-one I’d never met – and said, ‘I’ve got a family for you to adopt.’ That’s how it started,” said Fitzgerald.

Mom-to-Mom is a friendship circle of mothers set up in conjunction with inner-city school teachers such as Gelson who identify moms needing help, said Roussy.

“Our moms help each other just like we do with our friends. We are building a community around them, a human safety net. After we stabilize the basic needs for food, transportation, furniture, the mom can come up for air. Poverty isolates and when you are struggling to feed your kids, you can’t really think about other things like finding a job or taking your kids skiing,” said Roussy.

There’s no shortage of volunteers, said Fitzgerald – “we’ve got about 30 without really asking but we need grocery money to buy food for families.”

They need help shifting furniture from the west side to the east as well as storage space because some realtors have joined the cause “and they are great at turning up furniture, but it has to be taken away right now,” said Fitzgerald.

They also need help with pest control.

Ask why and out comes this story: “I have one little girl who went to Children’s Hospital at the age of five because of anxiety. She was given three psychiatric diagnoses all around anxiety and I asked her what she was anxious about.

“She pulled up her shirt and showed me hundreds of bedbug bites and she tells me she’s really scared of bugs because when her mom turns on the stove all the cockroaches drop from the hood into the pot.

“She said, ‘My mom stirs the pot with one hand and tries to get the cockroaches out with the other.’ But sometimes she doesn’t get them all and she didn’t like the sound of the crunches in her mouth.”

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