First Nations mental health focus of aid project

A Jewish humanitarian association plans to send mental health experts to seven First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario.

Jewish humanitarian association Vi'ahavta will send send health experts into communities

Jewish humanitarian association Ve'ahavta has sent health experts to Guyana and Kenya. Now they are working with seven aboriginal communities in northwestern Ontario. (Supplied)

A Jewish humanitarian association plans to send mental health experts to seven First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario to help.

The move is part of Ve'ahavta's first Canadian project. The organization has previously advised health care workers in Guyana and Kenya.

Vi'ahavta president Avrum Rosensweig said this is the first time the organization will operate in Canada.

"It will clearly have to be tweaked for the environment that we're going into, but we do have the ability to do that. The organization has a lot of depth," he said.

Rosensweig will visit with the Kenora Chiefs Advisory later this month, and the two groups will work out the details of the mental health program.

"So many projects have started from a wrong footing," he said, adding they hope to address the needs of the First Nations communities.

Keeping the momentum going

The Kenora Chiefs Advisory supports the project and health director Jocelyne Goretzki said participating communities will benefit from expert advice. She hopes those benefits will last.

"A lot of initiatives start out great and there's a lot of interest," she said.

"I think it's just to keep the momentum going through the project. That's important."

Mental health experts are expected to be in communities by winter.

The project builds off some of the projects that Ve'ahavta has operated in Guyana and Kenya. What the organization does is to send health experts into small communities to work with local health care providers, and together they assess needs, then come up with ways to meet those needs.

The volunteer health experts usually work in the communities for three to six months.

Building on community strengths

According to Ve'ahavta’s director of national and international programs, they will have to adapt the program that they have been running in Africa and South America to make it work in northern Ontario.

"Indigenous communities in Guyana and indigenous communities in Ontario are not one and the same," Sarah Zelcer said.

"We don't anticipate that [the project is] going to look the same. In fact, we anticipate that it's going to look quite different."

She added the project will be sustainable because the volunteers will be training community members to carry on the work.

"The idea is that the fellows will be trained to build on community strengths and support the individuals who are already working on the front lines," Zelcer said.

Goretzki said she thinks the project is a great idea.

"Any help that our communities can get is awesome and any opportunities that they can have to improve health ... is great," she said. "It's wonderful."

The Kenora Chiefs Advisory works with seven First Nations in the Kenora area: Shoal Lake 40, Ochiichagwe'Babigo'Ining, Grassy Narrows, Naotkamegwanning, Iskatewizaagegan 39, Wabaseemoong, Obashkaandagaang.