‘We just wrapped ourselves around them’
Artwork by social worker Kate Kuhn and Ashli Robertson. The message in this artwork is the perfect complement to a way of being and living that social worker Lisa Sanghera’s mother instilled in her children. Lisa continues to carry it in her work for the ministry.
Lisa Sanghera thinks her interest in social work may be the result of the issues her parents faced as an interracial couple in 1950s Vancouver.
“My mother is Caucasian. My father is East Indian, born in India. When they got married, interracial relationships weren’t approved by their families or by society. Throughout her life, Lisa watched her mother model acceptance, service and kindness.
“She always taught us that when you have an opportunity to lift someone up, you lift them up!”
Her mother’s way of being has become a guiding principle in Lisa’s career.
Lisa holds a bachelor in child and youth care from the University of Victoria and has worked with the ministry for 14 years, mainly in child protection. In 2016, she got the opportunity to work on a new team in New Westminster called Youth First. The team serves youth at high risk in the North Fraser region (New Westminster, Burnaby, Ridge-Meadows and Tri-Cities), where some of the kids are living on the streets, struggling with drug addiction, and have experienced personal and family trauma.
When she started out, she was a little worried about whether she could do it. “I felt like I didn’t know enough about the issues facing these kids, and there was a perception that these youth could be hard to work with.”
Part of the excitement in joining this new team was an opportunity to implement an idea she had about building a donation room from the ground up. It would be a place where youth could access good-quality, donated clothing and accessories.
While Lisa has since moved on to a new position as acting team leader, many of the youth she worked with still keep in touch, including one young woman who made a lasting impression on her.
“When this girl first started coming to the office, her head was down. She made little eye contact and gave one-word answers. She’d struggled with drugs and was living with anxiety, depression and sexual assault trauma. She wouldn’t stay at a foster placement, attend school or engage in mental-health services.
“Eventually we convinced her to see a clinician at our office once a week. A youth worker brought her, so she didn’t have to come alone. I supported her by sitting in on appointments.
“Within a few short months, we saw significant changes. She was really athletic, but she hadn’t been active. We got her back into softball, where she became the star first-baseman and relief pitcher. A colleague of mine would go to almost all her games and helped her look for a part-time job. It wasn’t long before she’d be bouncing into the office, heating up noodles and chatting with staff. Her therapist connected her to a firefighting camp. Now, she’s 18, she’s graduated from high school and she’s interested in becoming a firefighter. A female firefighter she met at the camp is now her foster parent. She’s also the perfect candidate for the Agreements with Young Adults (AYA) program next year when she turns 19.
“This kid can sing, draw and is a fabulous athlete. Her future looks bright.”
In a conversation with the youth (who cannot be named due to legislated privacy concerns), she said of her experience, “They worried about me. I’d be sitting alone with my thoughts. It would be the worst time of the day or night and I’d get a text. It’s the little things. They felt like family.”
“What people need to understand is that these kids have so much to offer,” says Lisa. “As a team, we just wrapped ourselves around them. There’s a misconception sometimes that kids don’t want change. But you need to realize, it’s not just about them stopping drugs. The drug use is a result of pain. It’s always devastating for them if they slip and relapse. It can be tough for them to find hope and it’s important to show them you will show up in their lives. I’ve learned that there’s no straight line to recovery. You have to walk a fine line of not judging the kids, but at the same time caring enough to show them you expect better because you know they can do it.
“A ministry office can be a hard place to come to, but sometimes, there’s no way around it, so we made the space as welcoming as possible for youth.”
That was part of the idea for the giving room. What began with 10 friends and family has expanded to the point where there are about 90 to 100 people who donate. The kids also donate. As Lisa explains, it’s become a part of the work with the kids: “You never know what they’re going to tell you while they’re sifting through stuff.” And giving back was part of the idea as well. “If the kid takes three bags, I’d ask them to give back one.” They also donate to Burnaby Hospice. “It’s a full-circle way for them to receive and to give.”
- March 11–17, 2018, is Social Work Week in B.C. and March is National Social Work Month in Canada.
- For more about the AYA program, visit: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/family-social-supports/youth-and-family-services/teens-in-foster-care/agreements-with-young-adults
- Find out about Youth First at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgpT9VxmYrE&feature=youtu.be
- Visit BC Association of Social Workers for more information about the profession at: http://www.bcasw.org/