In the spring of 2014, Angel Nagy arrived in Calgary with two goals in mind: beat drug addiction and get her children back. “I was hopeless, lost, confused,” she says. “I felt like at the age of 25, I had failed at life.”
Fast forward to late 2016: Nagy’s three young boys are back in the fold, joined by their new sister, two-year-old Emma; Nagy and her partner Ben Oosterhoff are co-parenting her four kids and his two young children. “Our home is a happy place,” says Nagy, who was born and raised in Grand Cache, Alberta.
Along with achieving her goals, other amazing things have happened. “Before, Mason couldn’t speak, he only knew a few words,” she says of her five-year-old, who was traumatized when he saw his mom being beaten by her previous partner, his dad. Jacob, 4, also had a speech delay. “Mason talks in full sentences now and Jacob is right where he should be for his age.”
Nagy says it’s all thanks to Calgary Urban Project Society. After leaving a treatment centre in the summer of 2014, her first stop was the organization that helps people in poverty. Within days of being welcomed with open arms, Nagy was given housing assistance, counselling and her boys were admitted to CUPS’s One World Child Development Centre for preschoolers.
While such a multi-pronged approach is ambitious and complex, it’s the only way to be effective with families like Nagy’s, says Carlene Donnelly. “We do deal with the basic needs, like getting them housed and fed,” says the society’s executive director. “Yet over the past decade, we have put a much more intensive focus on getting parents and other caregivers to understand how their kids develop and how they can help.”
Donnelly, who has spent the past two decades working at the now-27-year-old non-profit, says organizations like hers have undergone a sea of change over the past decade thanks to advances in scientific research. “Finding out what trauma and stress does to children, was a real wake-up call for me,” she says. “It can literally stop brain growth and, later in life, those kids are at higher risk for everything from cancer and diabetes, to heart disease and suicide.”
Indeed, in recent years there has been an explosion in knowledge when it comes to child development, thanks to experts like Canada’s Dr. James Fraser Mustard and Dr. Bruce Perry of the U.S.-based ChildTrauma Academy, which provided assistance to the CUPS when it was developing its program for the One World Child Centre in 2003.
Locally, the Palix Foundation, a private foundation working in the related areas of child development, mental health and addiction, created the Alberta Wellness Initiative to further promote research and collaboration. Alberta Health Services, the University of Calgary and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child are some of its partner organizations.
Thanks to this better understanding, CUPS now includes programs like Nurturing Parents, which translates academic understanding into everyday terms. “Some of our donors and staff worried it was too scientific,” says Donnelly. “But when we explained to the adults how their interactions affected healthy development of the child’s brain, they felt empowered.”
Bonnie Johnston is another who has worked with those on the front lines of research. Earlier this month, her organization announced a partnership with the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine, to conduct one of the most comprehensive studies of child abuse victims to date.
“It will give us even greater understanding of the impact of trauma on the developing brain,” says Johnston, CEO of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, of the longitudinal study.
In its three years of existence, the centre has focused on both an interdisciplinary approach to prevention and treatment of child abuse victims — one involving police, AHS and Alberta Justice — and the research available on what Johnston calls “the invisible but very real” effects of trauma on the young.
One of its programs, an outreach for pregnant moms, came directly from such knowledge. Teams work with homeless women, getting them prenatal care and other assistance. “By the time kids arrive here, something has already happened to them,” she says. “Hopefully, we can help some of those families before then.”
Karen Orser says that those on the front lines have long known the power of helping just one child, but now they’re better equipped to make their case thanks to the science. “You can see the difference it makes in a child’s life,” she says of the services provided by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area, of which she is president and CEO. “Now we have proof that it can buffer toxic stress, that it can help with executive functioning.”
While stress, trauma and abuse can have profound effects early in life, Jane Wachowich has been witness to the power of transformation in much older kids.
“The data shows that next to early childhood, our age group is the second most important developmental stage,” says Wachowich, executive director of Cornerstone Youth Centre. Its many offerings include free hot meals, basketball, music lessons and mentorship for 11 to 15 year olds after school. “Our kids are at a very malleable, easily influenced time of their lives — we can set their course straight, we can make a major difference.”
For Angel Nagy, the benefits of science combined with caring organizations like CUPS has been life-altering for her young family. “I don’t know what I would have done with CUPS and I’m glad I don’t have to find out,” she says. “What they did for me, for all of us, is nothing short of a miracle.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area, Calgary Urban Project Society, Cornerstone Youth Centre and Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre are recipients of the 2016 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund