Nova Scotia

IWK volunteers confused, angry after changes to new mom support program

A volunteer program run by the IWK for more than two decades is undergoing big changes, and many volunteers are worried it will come at the expense of vulnerable families in Halifax.

Three staff co-ordinators let go last week

Kathy Dahn has been a volunteer with the Extra Support for Parents program for 15 years. (CBC)

A volunteer program run by the IWK Health Centre for more than two decades is undergoing big changes, and many volunteers are worried it will come at the expense of vulnerable families in Halifax.

The Extra Support for Parents program was founded in 1995, and was administered by three full-time staff. They co-ordinated more than 50 volunteers who visited once a week with families struggling with new babies.

Volunteers recently found out that the staff co-ordinators were let go last week. 

'A life-saving program'

"It all happened so fast," said Kathy Dahn, a 15-year volunteer with the ESP program. "It was very shocking for all of us." 

Dahn says the co-ordinators successfully matched her with roughly 30 families over her years with the program. 

"Every one of the families that I've been involved with, they just considered it a life-saving program for them," she said Monday. "A lot of them don't have a lot of family in the area. They don't have a lot of support, so this one day a week for them is truly something they look forward to." 

A professional friend

Roberta Hibbert became a volunteer in 2015, after her own family benefited from a similar program in another province. 

"Holding the baby, helping by offering conversation. Sometimes it's pretty lonely in their homes and a new baby is demanding of time," she said. 

Hibbert said she looked on her role as a "professional friend" to help a new mother through a tough time. In one case, she gave a mom more time for her personal needs. 

"I held the baby so that she could take a shower. To anyone else that's pretty simple," Hibbert said. 

Anger and sadness

Volunteer Kori Thompson has spent the last seven years with the program, and has been matched with about 25 families, including mothers dealing with mental illness or who had just received babies back from care.

Three ESP co-ordinators are no longer working with the program. From left to right: Emma Kathleen, Susan DeWolf, and Maura Donovan in 2005. (ESP 20th Anniversary/Facebook)

Thompson said she wants to see the IWK improve the program, but doesn't see how that can happen, especially with the founding co-ordinators gone. 

"I think I probably went through all the emotions of trauma. I was angry, I got really sad, and then I started to think, 'Oh my gosh ... I just don't know what these people are going to do now,'" she said.  

IWK statement

In a statement, the IWK said it has been taking a "closer look at volunteer services and support for families in the community." 

"It has been identified that the Extra Support for Parents program needed to shift its delivery model. This transition is currently underway," wrote hospital spokesperson Nick Cox in an email. 

Three co-ordinators of the Extra Support for Parents program were let go by the IWK Health Centre last week. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

"The current ESP volunteers are transitioning to IWK Volunteer Services. ESP will not be accepting new referrals at this time. ESP staff has worked closely with us, our volunteers and families during this transition. In the meantime, the IWK will provide options for community-based resources to those requesting this information."

More questions

The volunteers say they're not satisfied with that explanation and have more questions about why the changes were made. 

"The transition hasn't happened. It hasn't happened for the volunteers, it hasn't happened for the families," said Hibbert. "There's no confidence that this program is going to be exactly what we've been offering. And that's what's frustrating for me as a volunteer, because I've put my heart and soul into the time that I've spent with these families."

In the meantime, Thompson, Dahn and Hibbert say their work has stalled as they are not currently matched to families. And although they say they want to help more parents, the changes have given them pause. Kathy Dahn said she does not feel able to go back right away.

"I will not be volunteering at the IWK for a while. This has very much soured me," she said.

"I don't feel there's three other people out there that could be just brought back in to run this program. They had so much information in their brains, and so much connection with the community, in so many ways....To restart what they've lost now is going to be very challenging." 

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca