Burnaby Family Life marks 40 years of helping families survive—and thrive
Maria-Elena Stancliffe was walking down Edmonds one day in 1996 with her infant son Gabriel in a stroller and her three-year-old daughter Susana in tow.
She was extremely depressed, and for good reason. She had no friends, no job, no money, and no husband. She had come to Canada from Chile as a refugee in 1987. At first she and her husband lived in Toronto, and when the cold winters became too much they came to Burnaby. But just two months after their arrival, her husband bolted.
On that day in 1996, Maria-Elena’s kids needed to use the washroom so they ducked into the Edmonds Community Centre. On a wall in the hall were a bunch of pamphlets and brochures.
One was for Burnaby Family Life, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, offering free parenting classes.
She phoned the number, but the course had already started. The woman on the other end of the phone asked Maria-Elena, “Are you a single mother?”
Maria-Elena burst into tears. “Are you OK? Let me see if I can do something.”
Burnaby Family Life sprung in 1971 from a community interfaith group. The churches felt there were no real family service agencies in the city at the time.
They went to the United Way, the school district, the city and the health authorities. They put a board of directors together from those organizations and started Burnaby Family Life on a $200 city grant.
The first sessions were held in church basements, but eventually the organization developed a strong relationship with the school district’s continuing education department, which allowed them access to its facilities. As well, the city has provided a grant every year, as well as lease subsidies and free advertising.
“These partnerships have been the backbone of the organization. We couldn’t possibly do it without those structural supports,” says executive director Jeanne Fike, who has been the face of BFL since being hired in 1986.
The pamphlet and the phone call changed Maria-Elena’s life. It may have even saved it. She began taking every BFL course she could. She also registered her children for art therapy classes, which Susana, in particular, loved.
“I was very, very depressed. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any friends,” recalls Maria-Elena, her eyes filling with tears at the memory. “I thought I was alone as a single mom with children. That was a great support for me to meet women going through the same struggles.”
Eventually she signed up for a 12-week career exploration program while BFL provided day care. She had been an ESL teacher in Chile, and the program cost $200—money she didn’t have—but one of the workers told her an anonymous donor had paid for her. After she graduated Maria-Elena found out the money came from the woman’s father because he was so touched by her story.
More than 30 years ago, Jeanne Fike had a two-year-old son and was pregnant. She was out in the backyard when another neighbour, who was also pregnant, said to her, “Hey, let’s take this parenting class.”
“Sure,” replied Fike.
It seemed incidental at the time, but that one-word reply was monumental for Fike. The program was called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting.
“It just changed my life,” says Fike. “It’s been applicable to all aspects of my life. I’ve built my relations with my husband, my friends and colleagues using the [program’s] philosophy.”
It was Fike’s first contact with Burnaby Family Life. She not only took more courses, she volunteered.
“In those days it was so grassrooots that I was invited into the day-to-day operations,” says Fike.
Eventually, Fike was hired as a part-time coordinator. Her total budget the first year was $18,000. These days, BFL is funded to the tune of $3.5 million by seven government ministries and it has more than 25 partnerships with other agencies, government levels, community organizations and businesses.
Burnaby resident Carol Matusicky, a BFL board director, was the executive director of the B.C. Council for Families for more than 25 years. As a result, she is intimately familiar with most of the organizations in the province that served families.
“Some organizations work until it’s broken. Burnaby Family Life is very supportive and helps from the beginning,” says Matusicky. “They are supporting families to be the best they could be from the get-go.”
Matusicky says most social service organizations try to fix problems when they arise. But Burnaby Family Life’s programs help to prevent the problems, such as children running afoul of the law, before they happen.
“It’s almost from the womb to the tomb. They’re there for children, for adults, for men, women and immigrants. They do an awful lot of things,” says Matusicky. “Without sounding corny, because I have been at this for a long time, these are the things that strengthen communities and make them better places to live.”
In many ways, she adds, BFL’s work flies under the radar in Burnaby.
“I tell people it’s like housework, when it’s done nobody notices; when it’s not done all hell breaks loose.”
Fike, 62, grew up in Burnaby and attended Douglas Road elementary school. She recalls from those days seeing a sign on Boundary Road saying, Welcome to Burnaby, population 70,000.
Since then, the city and Burnaby Family Life have grown rapidly together.
Back when BFL began, Burnaby was a white, middle-class bedroom community, says Fike. Since then the demographics have changed, and consequently BFL has staff that can speak 46 languages, with many of its programs involving immigrant and refugee settlement.
In 40 years, not only has BFL’s budget gone from $200 to $3.5 million, it has gone from no employees to 87 salaried workers and 20 volunteers along with university practicum students. It has satellite offices all over the city, and its administration office is next to the Holdom SkyTrain station after decades being based at the old Burnaby Heights Resource Centre.
“So many people say non-profits should be run more like a business. Well, the business community can learn from us about efficiency because we constantly have to rejig,” says Fike.
“The community doesn’t realize the value of the work we do. It’s really value-changing and life-changing work that we do.”
Their work, she says, reduces costs down the line by helping to prevent young people from taking the wrong turn and clogging up the criminal justice and health systems.
“We’re really giving taxpayers lots of dollars, we do so much with so little,” she says.
Even a few dollars help. All those years ago, that “anonymous” donor’s belief in Maria-Elena turned out to be a good investment. She went on to get not only her diploma, but then to pursue a masters degree.
Maria-Elena has gone on to teach all over the Lower Mainland, has written three books on teaching Spanish and ESL, and is the proud mother of two “talented” teenagers. A lot of the credit, she says, goes to Burnaby Family Life for the support systems it has provided her.
All because she picked up a pamphlet in her darkest hour.
“It was such a blessing, a real blessing for me,” says Maria-Elena as she dabs the tears from her eyes.
• For more about BFL go to www.burnabyfamilylife.org.