New Brunswick

Moncton charity Headstart lives 'paycheque to paycheque'

Moncton Headstart, which has been helping families in crisis for more than 40 years, is experiencing a crisis of its own.

Community fundraiser on Tuesday hopes to raise $100,000 for group that helps struggling families

Moncton Headstart executive director Mary O'Donnell has had many sleepless nights as the longstanding charity struggles to continue its work because of a funding shortfall. (Submitted by Moncton Headstart)

Moncton Headstart, which has been helping families in crisis for more than 40 years, is now experiencing a crisis of its own.

While the charity is best known for collecting school supplies and winter coats for needy families, it has now found itself "living paycheque to paycheque," said executive director Mary O'Donnell.

"A couple of years ago, at the end of our annual meeting, the board basically said we have to stop this bleeding," O'Donnell said.

"If the funding wasn't going to come, then we were going to find ourselves unfortunately in a position where the board would have to make a decision which none of us ever want to talk about: how does Headstart remain open or are we going to come to a point where we have to close the doors."

Early intervention still the mission

Moncton Headstart is an early intervention program with an annual budget of $1.2 million. While all of its referrals come from government agencies, only 40 per cent of its funding comes from provincial coffers.

Mary O'Donnell said while Toyland, the school supplies drive and Coats for Kids are the charity's best known programs, Headstart's core work remains early family intervention. (Submitted by Moncton Headstart)

"Families come to us because they've been identified as the child having developmental delays, and there has to be crisis in the home, so it's really a combination of those two," O'Donnell said. "I never like to say that we're the last resort but many times that's what it does come to."

O'Donnell said Headstart hired a consultant to help the charity find ways to remind the public about the work it does, something that is difficult given the vulnerable population Headstart works with and the need for confidentiality.

"The dynamics in the family are such that we focus on mental health issues, we focus on literacy for both the parent and for the child, we focus on the crisis management," O'Donnell said.

"There's no question the work with the child is very much a critical component, but more importantly, if you want to help a child you have to also help make change within the environment in which they are growing."

Back to basics

Moncton Headstart was founded in 1974 by Claudette and Doug Bradshaw as a free daycare for struggling families and quickly evolved to include a program for parents.

I always say that the day the family arrives at Headstart is the day that we're trying to basically wean them off of us.- Mary O'Donnell, Moncton Headstart

O'Donnell said Claudette Bradshaw, who went on to serve as a federal MP, cabinet minister and advocate for the poor, always reminds her that Headstart is based on psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It begins with basic needs such as food and shelter, and expands to include the feeling that you belong and and that you are loved.

"That was really the intent of Headstart — to focus on the food and the housing and the security and slowly building up the confidence that they can feel they are able to stand on their own two feet," O'Donnell said.

"I always say that the day the family arrives at Headstart is the day that we're trying to basically wean them off of us."

Families deserve to dream

While the stories of individuals who have benefited from the program can't be shared, O'Donnell said she sees parents and children growing every day.

"Families sometimes don't have dreams and that sounds very simplistic but if you're not able to dream or believe that you can do something better in life, it causes people to feel hopeless …  and that's where it leads to many other issues within the community that the community ultimately pays for."

Over the past 43 years, Headstart has continued to grow and now includes the Mapleton Teaching Kitchen, Future Horizons Housing and a GED program.

"When we see a family or a parent that has gone on and finished their GED and then pursues further education and they become real role models for their own children … it changes the dynamic of the family."

Community support continues

To support the expanded programs, O'Donnell continues to apply for grants, with the remaining money coming from regular contributions by community groups and corporate donors. At the end of the year, Headstart needs $250,000 in additional donations to stay afloat.

A fundraiser Tuesday night called Greater Moncton Gives Back hopes to raise $100,000. Last year that event raised $172,000 for another struggling and longstanding Moncton charity, Big Brothers-Big Sisters.

A group of community and business leaders have answered Moncton Headstart's call for help by organizing a fundraising event Nov. 28 with a goal of raising $100,000.

Event co-chair Diane Lord calls Headstart a "remarkable organization with a huge heart."

"They provide absolutely essential services and deserve the support of the community as they go through these challenging times," added co-chair Bernard Lord. 

O'Donnell said that thanks to continued support from local businesses, community groups and leaders, she is optimistic Moncton Headstart will continue its work.