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Houston Community Services steps up to help

People take the steps up to the Houston Community Services Association for all kinds of reasons, and at all stages of life.

People take the steps up to the Houston Community Services Association for all kinds of reasons, and at all stages of life.

In fact, some aren’t quiet ready to walk the stairs of the 11th Street building—the Beanstalk Daycare Centre, a part of the HSCSA, is full of kids 30 months and up.

Teenagers also drop in, many to look for jobs at the next-door Youth Employment Program. Others drop by for support with family trouble, or just a ticket for a splash in the pool.

And adults come in for all kinds of support, on issues big and small.

On Thursday morning, for example, a couple stopped by to have a form notarized—a service the HCSA provides free of charge. Many others come to learn parenting skills, some so they can rejoin children in provincial care.

Still others visit as victims of crime, to navigate the court system and prepare impact statements that can have a real effect on how their cases end.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is.

Since it opened in 1982, the HCSA has gone from a peak of seven full-time staff doing social work to just three and an addictions counsellor who works part time. Funding comes from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

But despite all the challenges, staff at HCSA sound undeterred.

“I really enjoy it,” says Myrna Arnold, executive director and head of Victim Services.

“In fact, I don’t know when I’ll ever retire.”

Arnold did retire once already—as a Nova Scotia school principal.

Now, what started in 1998 as a project for a new RCMP officer has become a full-time job for Arnold—helping crime victims to navigate the courts. Lawyers speak in very technical terms, she said, there are lots of court dates to follow, and people may feel too intimidated to ask exactly what’s going on.

“When you support victims, you know they’re glad you’re there.”

“She’s great at what she does,” said Marianne Dekker, administrator at HCSA.

Born in Holland, her route to Houston Community Services was a whole continent wider than Arnold’s but also passed through schools.

Dekker was a chemical analyst in Holland, but after moving to Houston she started counselling school children with behavioural problems and decided she wanted to do social work full time.

That meant having to redo a Canadian high school degree at age 40, plus a year’s training as a social worker. But Dekker did it, and joined the HCSA staff 18 years ago, one year before Arnold.

Staff at HCSA don’t only receive visitors, they also go out to help in family homes. That’s where Dekker had one of her most memorable experiences—the kind of case that staff “strive for and survive on,” she said with a laugh.

For months, Dekker helped a single father with two babies who had never been taught to cook or keep house.

“I had to watch how he was cooking his supper, how he was feeding his kids,” she said.  She ate with them, and sometimes played with the kids outside while the father cooked.

“He was very good father,” she said. “He tried very hard.”

There were struggles—Dekker had to mediate between the young father and a social worker appointed by the province—but today, the kids are in high school and doing very well.

“We are so excited if something works out,” said Arnold.

But Dekker and Arnold agreed that Houston has many other kids of high school age who need support beyond what they can provide.

“We should have a teen home here,” said Dekker.

Smithers used to have a home for troubled teens, but it’s closed.

“We do have a lot of kids who aren’t living at home because they’re having problems with their parents,” Arnold said. “They just go”

Earlier in the week, she said, a teenager spent the day sleeping on a couch at YEP. And staff sometimes have to run out to Highway 16, to bring back teenage girls and boys who insist on hitch-hiking to Smithers.

Evening daycare is another service that many local parents are looking for, they said.

The Beanstalk Centre runs until the late afternoon, but many single parents on late-night shifts at restaurants or the mill need childcare that goes later.

“If you have to work from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., where does the kid go?” asked Arnold.

Still, the HCSA does provide a lot of service, Dekker said, if people are willing to make the trip down the hill and work with them.

“The services are there,” she said, but people have to be willing to make that trip.

Asked what young parents need to know most about raising a child, Dekker and Arnold said parenting is not as easy as people think.

“You need to think about how you talk to this child, how you discipline this child,” she said. “Because in the first five years you’re going to shape the child.”

“And both parents have to be on the same page,” Arnold added.

If one parent is unwilling to discipline a child, that child will learn to play one parent off the other, she said.

Parents may have good reason to be wary of discipline—they may have had overbearing parents themselves.

But trying to be a friend to your children is not the answer, Dekker said.

“Because that child thinks—you know, with a friend in school, when they’re angry they say ‘I don’t want to talk to you.'”

Just as parenting can be hard, helping parents can be emotionally draining too.

“You just can’t leave it at the office,” said Arnold.

But that is also the reward of working as a community service provider, Arnold said. People they helped even a decade ago pop in to say hello and give an update.

There’s a clear reason for such lasting bonds, Dekker said.

“Because you showed them some respect, no matter how tough life is for them.”