Sharing Best Practices: An Interview with Germaine Asplin

 Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Jenna Christina

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Jenna Christina

A discernment process for Germaine about the next stages in her personal life has coincided with restructuring in the agency she has worked for, and so she made the decision to explore new opportunities, after coordinating the Victoria’s Best Babies CPNP  program for the past 24 years.

Germaine’s advice to someone just starting out as a coordinator, would be to fundamentally understand harm reduction, risk assessment, relationship building, and needs assessment.  “If you can’t build relationships with the women coming to the groups, it is unlikely that you will be able to meet your goals.” 

We spoke about changes in the program over the year.  Germaine commented that the essence of the program has stayed constant:  support for women with children. 

The Best Babies program has run in two very different operating spaces in the years since the program started.  The first space was an offsite location, a house with gardens, which offered access to a kitchen and room to cook together.  The second is 2 rooms in the host agency, which has offered an intimate, safe space for meeting together.  One of the strengths of the PHAC-funded programs is their flexibility and adaptability that enables them to be operated effectively under varying circumstances and in different types of location.  The primary operational piece of the program, whatever the space it operates in, is the one-to-one relationships with mothers:  someone to listen to them, to care for them, and to give guidance tailored to their individual circumstance.

Germaine notes that the women who come to the program need to find a safe place and flexibility; the choice is theirs to just listen, to leave, or to engage one-to-one, as they feel comfortable.  The first visit is highly significant, and taking the time to focus on the individual offers the opportunity to build trust.  Mothers coming into the program really appreciate the relaxed, non-judgmental environment where they don’t have to wait to talk with someone, are able to have their child with them, and are welcomed and treated as a valuable individual. 

In running the group, Germaine has seen that vulnerability can be masked behind education, poised appearance, and external social skills.  Women dealing with depression, domestic violence and mental health issues often don’t know where to turn for help.  Germaine has learned that women who choose to come to the group have a reason for being there, even if it may take a while for it to show.  It is important to keep access to the group open and allow women to choose for themselves whether it is the right place for them to be to meet their and their children’s needs. 

An average group composition in this urban setting on Vancouver Island would include about 25% non-Caucasian families, usually composed of a diversity of Aboriginal, South Asian, East Indian, and African women and their children.  Cross-cultural sharing that helps to break down barriers of language and of differing cultural values

As the years go by, the community experiences changes and the risks can change, but the goals stay the same:  healthy pregnancy and healthy birth outcomes. 

There are other types of family programming available in most communities, with craft rooms, sports and activities, but for families attending the PHAC-supported programs, food security and the opportunity to build relationships of trust are primary.  Germaine comments that, especially for participants coming from First Nations culture, and for new immigrants from traditional cultures, breaking bread with someone and sharing meals together have real emotional significance.  And as well, for any participant, when people feel better and aren’t hungry, they are more able to open up and build relationships and community. 

Sliding-scale fees, waitlists, etc. are making it increasingly challenging to get support for individuals when they need it and to address crises, post-partum issues, etc.  Quite often, women don’t come to the program until they are around 3 months post-partum, when they are looking for support with breast-feeding and care of their infant.  Germaine stresses that every moment counts with women who are struggling; every contact opportunity is valuable.

Germaine notes that housing insecurity is a big issue for many of the families who attend the program.  Many of the women and their children are couch-surfing, or in transitional housing, or are living with a boyfriend but have zero income themselves.  This is a source of anxiety and vulnerability for the women and their children.  The program runs three times a week, Wednesday and Thursday at the main site, and Tuesday at an offsite location to assist in dealing with transportation issues.

Germaine’s greatest source of inspiration has been and continues to be the people we serve in the program:  being enmeshed with the group and working with women in the here and now of their reality.  She has also taken inspiration from First Nations’ traditional understanding of supporting women, and from the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, the way he works with people on the inside and the outside simultaneously. Germaine finds Dr. Mate to be a truly inspiring model of a physician.

In the current iteration of the Best Babies program, Germaine does a lot of the frontline work herself.  She has had as many as 8 staff working in the program in the past, but moves of location have led to staff reductions.  Currently, Germaine has been running the program with one other staff member, a woman who brings amazing experience of First Nations and urban environments.  The program has also developed partnerships with Island Health over time: 3 nurses visit the program and they have a dietician onsite at their location.

Over the years, Germaine has found that the selection of staff is critical.  It is necessary to be very selective in choosing staff members who can understand and support the reality of the women’s actual lives (e.g.  harm reduction) and who have the skill base and passion to work with this group.  For program staff to succeed, they must have heart and energy for the work, and need to be able to work with the women in the program where they are, without judging them.

Germaine has found that the women in the program are really good at supporting each other.  She comments that he program staff learn so much from working with the real-life experience of the women they are supporting.

Germaine has found training on trauma-informed practice to be particularly valuable to her work in the program.  She also notes that standard practice is about meeting people where they are, so knowing about what is happening (changes) in your community, and developing trends and research, for example in FASD and mental health, increase the ability to personalize your delivery to meet the needs of the individuals with whom you are working.

Her greatest rewards have come from getting to know the women in the program.  She says, “The women who have come to the program over the years have been so inspiring.  Seeing how they cope through severe challenges creates a sense of balance and perspective around one’s own life issues. “ Germaine is full of appreciation and respect for the resilience and courage of the women who come with their children to Best Babies.

Germaine has been involved in several major local projects, including:

  • The establishment of the Sexual Assault Centre, which has been a big initiative in using a trauma-informed practice model.
  • Identifying crisis issues for pregnant women in the local community (e.g. housing, addictions).
  • The development of the HerWay Home project, which was picked up by Island Health.  HerWay Home provides non-judgmental health care and social supports for pregnant and parenting women who have a history of substance use and may also be affected by mental health issues, violence and trauma. 

Over the next few months, Germaine is looking forward to having more time for self-care.  Working and raising children has meant little time to spare for self-care, and she is looking forward to having some time to listen to her body and take action to build up her health and physical resilience as she moves forward into the next phase of her life.

Germaine offers thanks for a lifetime of learning from the inspirational women who have participated in the Best Babies program over the last two decades.