'It basically saved my son': How a made-in-Ottawa program is helping teens battle addiction

Since launching in 2007, Project Step has helped over 9,000 teens and their families struggling with the reality of addiction — including Cindy Manor and her son Hunter.

More than 9,000 teens have received counselling since Project Step launched in 2007

Cindy Manor said that Project Step helped her son Hunter gain control over his cocaine addiction. (United Way Ottawa)

An Ottawa mother is crediting a local substance abuse treatment program with saving her son's life.

The program, called Project Step, was launched in 2007 by United Way Ottawa to provide better support for young people struggling with addiction and teach them the risks of using drugs and alcohol.

Cindy Manor's son Hunter got counselling and treatment through Project Step after he became addicted to cocaine as a teenager. 

"It basically saved my son," said Manor. "I truly believe that Hunter would no longer be here [without it]. Every time he used, he said he used because he didn't want to be here any longer."

Started with hockey injury

Manor said Hunter started self-medicating after receiving a head injury in hockey. She discovered he was using drugs on his first day of Grade 12. 

I was lost. I was panicked. It was the most frightening time of my life as a parent.- Cindy Manor

"The day I figured out he was addicted to cocaine, it was instant into overdrive. Where do we go? What do we do now?" said Manor. 

"I was lost. I was panicked. It was the most frightening time of my life as a parent."

Manor said she got her son into counselling with Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, a partner with Project Step.

Soon he asked her for more help, and after a three-month wait he was admitted to the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre — another partner of Project Step, and one which provides an in-treatment care program.

Manor said her son received months of counselling there, and eventually was able to finish his treatment at home. 

Counsellors in high schools

One of Project Step's major goals is to reach teens at school, where they spend a lot of time.

The program is available to students with all four of Ottawa's school boards, with addictions counsellors placed at each one of the area's 57 publicly-funded high schools.

We know that kids are using alcohol. They are using cannabis. They are using other illicit drugs.- Dennise Taylor-Gilhen, United Way Ottawa

"If you want to make a difference for kids, you need to meet them where they spend most of their time," said Dennise Taylor-Gilhen, vice-president of community impact at United Way Ottawa. 

Teens aren't likely to wait weeks and travel long distances to seek help for an addiction, Taylor-Gilhen said — which is why it's vital to have help that's easily available. 

United Way Ottawa also works with several Project Step partners, including Ottawa Public Health, the Champlain Local Health Integration Network, and the Ottawa Network for Education.

According to the agency, more than 9,400 students in Ottawa have received help from these school counsellors since 2007. Last year alone, more than 1,800 youth received substance abuse counselling.

The majority of that counselling was through the schools, Taylor-Gilhen said, but some teens received treatment through other services run by Project Step.

"We know that kids are using alcohol. They are using cannabis. They are using other illicit drugs," she said. "So it's unfortunately not a surprise that there is a need in our schools in Ottawa."

While its focus is providing counselling in a school setting, Project Step also offers services at Operation Come Home, Youville Centre, and Wabano Aboriginal Health Centre.

Taylor-Gilhen said that, to her knowledge, Project Step is the only program of its kind in Canada. 

'So vital'

Project Step's counselling services, however, aren't just for young people — they're also available to parents coping with a child with an addiction. 

Manor said she received counselling from Project Step, as she often felt a heavy burden of shame and would ask herself where she went wrong.

Even three years later, Manor said she still goes to counselling once a month. Taking the parent program and speaking with others in similar situations, she said, made her realize she wasn't to blame for her son's addiction.

The counselling also helped her talk with Hunter about his addiction, which will be a lifelong battle, she said.

"As a parent it was so vital to be with people that shared their stories every week and how we were going to get through it," she said.

"I can't imagine being a parent [and] not having any of these resources."