Sharing Best Practices: An Interview with Hazel Slape

 Frame of Children's Fingerprints and Hearts presented to Hazel at her CAPC retirement party

Frame of Children's Fingerprints and Hearts presented to Hazel at her CAPC retirement party

Hazel has run the CAPC program for 21 years in the small town of Chase, in the Interior of BC, located at the outlet of Little Shuswap Lake, the source of the South Thompson River.  The town has a population of roughly 2,500 and its main industries are forestry and tourism.  She facilitates the program on her own, as the sole staff person for the program.

We asked Hazel what she would say to someone just starting out as a coordinator, and she offered a range of practical suggestions.  She emphasized, “Tell them that this is a program about building connections and relationships with each other, within the community and, especially for those working in rural communities, with neighbouring communities.  These relationships will help you learn what resources are available, and help you to develop peer relationships, and friendships, with other local people working in similar community support work.” 

She would remind new coordinators that, “You are more than just the face of the session.  The participants will look to you as a role model.  Even if the participants have been coming to the program for a long time, ALWAYS greet them and make them welcome at every session. You have a key role for newcomers to your program.  At a quiet moment in the program, find time to introduce the new parent to the group, and the other participants do their part to make that individual feel welcomed.  You are teaching your group members how to welcome newcomers.”

In the hall Hazel uses for her program, there is a stage at the front of the room.  She puts up 2 tables in front of the stage, where she can lay out information sheets, brochures and program sign-in sheets.  She explains to program participants that it is a federal program and that she needs to keep statistics about program numbers.  She sends out a weekly email, text or phone call to each group member to confirm the meeting and/or notify of any changes.

Hazel has a stable format for her weekly 2-hour sessions, to establish predictability and security for parents and children who attend.  She starts with 45 minutes of parent conversation and child play, with tables pushed together for the mums to have coffee and chat, then a shared healthy snack, followed by a craft activity. She makes time to chat with individual participants.  She strongly believes that a key role for the facilitator is to truly listen to what the participants want and need, and she commented how important it is to always be willing to be flexible within the set program, and to take opportunities for ‘teachable moments’.

With 25 – 50 participants a week, there is not always time for a formal story time in every session, but she makes sure there are always lots of books available, and the mums read to kids informally during the sessions. Hazel has always taught the parents who come to the program, that the program should always be a safe, supportive, welcoming and fun! 

The program is known in the community informally as the “Parent’s and Kid’s Playgroup”.  Most parents find out about the program through word of mouth. There is a high level of trust and freedom in the long term, established relationship with the church community who rent the space to the program.  The church community has been responsive to the needs of the program over the years, and have facilitated the program’s use of their building, giving them their own lockable storage and their own notice board onsite and allowing them to modify the washroom with a change table to facilitate the need of the parents in the program.  There has been generosity of spirit and a great working relationship.  The very low rent for the space has remained unchanged over the years and includes the use of the building for a whole day (8:00 am – 10:00 pm) in December for the program to hold its family potluck supper night and Santa.  The morning is spent arranging the room, tables, chairs, and decorations, and after the supper everyone helps with the take down and clean up in order to leave the space clear and clean.  Everyone shares in a potluck supper at 6:00 pm. The Silver Belles and Beaus senior’s group have come to sing for the families in the program over the years.  The church community love supporting the families by offering space for the program, and having the children using their building.

The parents who attend the program often have tremendous needs and the program offers a place for supportive community.  Hazel loves the CAPC program, its aims and its adaptability to meet the real needs of families.  She and her husband lived up north in an indigenous community for several years, and the traditions and culture she learnt there have helped to inform her practice.  She also brought with her to the program experience of working in a hospice, which taught her to understand the power of silence in communication.

When asked how the CAPC program has changed over the years, Hazel replied that, whilst the format of the program model has been stable and consistent over the years, the significant change she has noticed has been in the depth of quality service that can be offered, as the program has developed, and as coordinators throughout the province have expanded their understanding, knowledge and capacity, based on the CAPC objectives.

From her perspective, the difference in offering the program in a rural community may be the importance of looking at the overall health of the whole family, mental and physical.  Improving the quality of health and meeting the needs of parents directly supports the health of children.  Hazel noted, for example, that for participants in her program, hard copies of resources work best, given out strategically.  The most important thing for parents in the program is finding someone to listen.

In terms of the challenges facing the families she serves, Hazel commented that, for families in small communities, the cost of living is high.  The program role models healthy living, but for low income families who have had unemployment for several years, it can be extremely challenging to put into practice.  Children often come to the program hungry, sometimes for their first meal of the day.  Hazel ensures that the program snacks include a balance of nutrients, such as cheese, fruit and raw vegetables.

Hazel mentioned two particular trainers whom she has found truly inspiring:

  • Bill O’Hanlon was a speaker in Kamloops at a 3-day YMCA conference some years ago.  CAPC funded participant groups to attend the daily sessions.  His tiny book, Do Something Different, is one Hazel has held on to over the years and still uses.  In it, he talks about “the land of impossibilities” and “the land of possibilities”.  The task is to build a bridge to connect the two, with tools to build resilience, hope that things can improve, and new skills to help families move over the bridge from a place of despair to a place of increasing capacity and resilience.
  • Dr. Gabor Mate!!!  Hazel can’t speak highly enough of Dr. Mate and his work.  She has found Chapter 17, “Wooing the child”, from his book Scattered Minds, particularly useful and, in her experience, it can be applied to work with all children.

In her professional practice, Hazel has found it helpful to remember that there is always a supportive contact available, through:

  • Her supervisor
  • Co-workers in similar fields of community work
  • Coordinator groups, especially when working through approaches to sensitive topics for families, such as whether or not to immunize.  On this topic, PHAC produced great support material to inform the discussion, and Public Health representatives came and spoke to the group.
  • Up-to-date online support material and other resources through PHAC and other reliable websites and sources.

Hazel credits her hospice work training on grief and loss, with dual practicums on mental health and hospice work, as having particular impact on her practice.  She did palliative care for a number of years, before starting her work as a Facilitator for the CAPC program.  She has learned that grief and loss are not just about the death of a loved one; they apply also to the process of moving from impossibility to possibility in other life situations of despair.  There is so much grief and loss in the families she works with.  An important piece in the program is teaching participants how to support each other through loss, sharing information and experience, and how to talk to children about death and loss (such as broken relationships). 

Three years ago the regional conference spent 3 days on spousal abuse, how difficult it is to connect to resources, and how to break the patterns leading to abuse (unemployment, debt, addiction, abuse).   This training has been very helpful.  Another useful training was the “Growing Great Families” training, focused on parents’ goals and dreams for themselves and for their children, and on family values.

Hazel has compiled a lot of resources to individualize for her community.  She likes the concept of ‘a glove with 5 fingers’, where you put individual resources, learning and skills together and they make something that works.

The most rewarding parts of Hazel’s work with the program has been seeing the positive changes in individuals and whole families who have attended the program.  She has seen friendships, formed as children in the program, that have led to long term connections, lasting now into adulthood, creating a strong network of mutually supportive relationships within the community.  She is also seeing second generation program attendees, who were children in the program themselves, now recommending the program to each other and coming along with their kids.  Hazel had a wonderful experience recently, when the group threw a surprise retirement party for her at the local beach!  The mums planned and organized the whole thing themselves, including arranging a photo session of group pictures taken with a timed-release camera on a tripod, and creating a canvas painting of a heart with all the kids’ fingerprints on it.

As she moves on from her work with the CAPC program in her community, Hazel is looking forward to the opportunity to build more (and new) connections, and to just having the time to focus on personal projects, like her genealogy research.

  • Highlight initiatives in the program Hazel has facilitated in Chase for over 21 years have included:
    • Every year on the first Friday of December, a local group of seniors have dressed up in funny clothes and have come along to the program to sing, entertain and interact with the children and adults with Christmas songs such as “Frosty the Snowman”,” Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, etc.  They call themselves the Silver Belles and Beaus, and always love attending.  Then, on the second Friday of December, the program participants decorate the basement facility for an organized evening family potluck supper in order to get the entire families with  parents, grandparents and children all together for a great evening of fun and interaction.  After supper, Santa would appear and each child would have a few minutes with him and receive a $5-$10 gift from Santa, purchased by the parents of the child, gift wrapped with the child’s name on it, and secretly given to Hazel to put in Santa’s bag.  Both these events have been hugely successful and looked forward to.  Attendance has usually been around 100-115 people.
    • Every year the group would do a fall outing to the local corn farm, where they would go for a hayrack ride through the fields of corn.  The owner would give them ears of corn to feed to the band of sheep, eager to pull the cob of corn through the fence to eat it up, with lots of giggles from the children.  They would then all load back up onto the wagon and go to the pumpkin patch, where each child could pick a pumpkin of their choice to take home.  Then they would have a simple picnic snack afterwards, provided by Hazel.
    • The program has always included an ongoing clothing exchange.  Parents love being able to pass their children’s clothes, etc. on to other families.
    • The group has offered local information sharing, about businesses and services, including home-based businesses run by program participants, to expand the resource knowledge base of what is available in the area.
    • Program participants have developed supportive friendships that extend outside the program sessions, arranging playdates for their children, actively encouraging new people to attend the group, and helping each other out with babysitting or home projects.

Hazel has always told the participant mums that it is ‘their program”, that she is only the facilitator to make it happen for them.  She finds that many of the participants just need a break from the home environment, to be in the presence of other women and children, and to have someone to talk to in adult conversation who will listen to them.

As a facilitator, Hazel believes in not worrying about your own agenda for the day.  She tries to be sensitive to the group and what they need at that particular time.  She strongly believes in showing respect for each individual in the group.  She always tries to spend even a minute or two one-to-one with each adult throughout the program session, and to interact with the children as much as possible while facilitating the program.  Her goal is always to make participants feel welcome, and to try to make the Healthy Beginnings program as much fun as possible, because most of the participant families do not have enough “fun” in their lives, with all the cares and worries they carry.  She says, “It’s all about healthy connections, relationships, and safety."