Recipient of the Catalyst of Change Award: Carmen Contreras from Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House
Carmen Contreras has worked as the Coordinator of Family Resource Programs at MPNH since 2012. In recognizing her commitment to community, the nominator for the Catalyst of Change Award stated:
“She is a very skilled Family Support worker who has been a beacon of light and encouragement for the families of the Mount Pleasant Community. She works tirelessly to plan, develop and implement programs that will have the greatest impact on families based on their individual and group needs. She is always looking for opportunities to leverage the limited resources available and seeks out partnerships and develops and builds on collaboration to make great things happen. She has been instrumental in developing fathering programs which are strength based and empowering, she has created hybrid programs for parent and infants that blend connection and relationship building along with increasing parenting skills. She recognizes that group dynamics for some families are very challenging, therefore she has created one-on-one parenting sessions that focus on the unique needs and goals of the individuals involved. Her passion to work alongside parents regardless of wherever they are at and to assist them in their parenting journey is very inspiring…”
When we interviewed Carmen, she emphasized that her primary driver is working alongside participants in her programs. She truly values the autonomy of the individual. She strives to clarify for individuals that she is not responsible for their choices and actions. Their life and their choices and decisions are their own. Her role is to provide information and programs for them to investigate from their own viewpoint.
Because Carmen is committed to her work for the long term, she is clear about preserving her own boundaries, so that she can maintain the focus and energy for her work. She loves to see families grow and to see parents develop the skills to provide their children with the tools they need to grow and thrive.
There are a lot of working parents in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood who can’t access weekday programs, so the Family Resource Programs run programming in the evening and weekends, including four Saturday Drop-In programs : “Oruguitas Latinas” Family Drop-In for Latin American families, and Dads at Play, based at the Neighbourhood House, and Sing & Grow Baby Time, and West Village Family Drop-In, based in Olympic Village, a new, developing adjacent community in Vancouver’s False Creek area. Weekday and evening programs for families include: Aboriginal Family Dinner; Aboriginal Families “Balancing our Wellbeing” program; “Just Play!” Family Drop-In; Parent Support Circle for parents, grandparents, caregivers, Vancouver Spanish Evening Circle; “Parenting Matters” program; a separate Parent Support Services “Grandparents Circle” program; and a YWCA Single Moms Support Group. As well, a Family Centre located close to the Neighbourhood House serves families with children 0-5 during the day, so MPNH Family Resource programming hours complement and increase the provision for families in the area.
MPNH also offer the Nobody’s Perfect parenting education program to families in transition (separation/divorce/adoptive & foster parents). Carmen noted that a sense of how difficult it is to support a family takes time to understand. It can be multi-layered. Once you start to get to know families, the layers open up. Where individuals have experienced trauma, the challenge is to know when to be ‘present’, and how you can be most useful at that particular moment.
Carmen identifies one of the biggest issues Family Resource staff deal with as being isolation, which is a huge issue in the programs, for Canadian-born families as well as for immigrant families. In a 2018 interview with Ruby Banga for the BC Council for Families, Carmen said,
“I think one of the biggest challenges parents face is not meeting their basic needs, such as not eating or sleeping properly, and feeling isolated or overwhelmed with a new baby. Parents also experience difficulties with managing their child’s behaviour due to a lack of knowledge of ages and stages, having no family or support system and not having affordable housing. Immigrant parents face challenges with finding a job, language skills and lack of extended family support. .. I think the challenges that parents face haven’t changed much, but parents are less and less equipped with skills, which may be due to a lack of networking with other parents. The frequency that parents use cell phones and social media is having an impact on their attachment with their children and their ability to be present. We are also stressing now, more than ever before, that parents need to practice self-care before they respond to difficult behaviour.”
Carmen talked about her work managing her team and training her staff to support families. Her experience has been that people sometimes get into this field thinking they can use their own experience to help others. A risk lies in feeling sorry for the parents or the children, or of saying “I can help you”, when, in fact, you can’t. She trains staff on the significance of maintaining professional boundaries and the importance of learning that Family Resource staff’s focus is parenting skills training, not counselling. She noted, “We can’t do everything. We cannot save the world.” The significant role we can play is to empower parents, to show them that their situation is unique and that they will need to find their own particular way forward, and to make sure families know what resources are available for them to utilize to build their family’s unique path.