CEO blog: Jacqueline Neligan on staying grounded as a family amidst COVID-19

Ladysmith Family and Friends (LAFF) CEO Blog April 2020

This article is part of a regular blog series where Children’s Health Foundation’s CEO Veronica Carroll sits down with stakeholders and community leaders to gain insight into the challenges Island families face today and to shed light on the great work being done in the community.

This week, Veronica connected with the Executive Director of one of our community partners, Jacqueline Neligan of Ladysmith Family and Friends (LaFF).  They spoke about how this vital community organization is adapting its programming amidst COVID-19, how Jacqueline became such a positive force in the community, and tools for parents and children to stay grounded in the current climate of uncertainty.

Can you tell us about the work of Ladysmith Family and Friends Society and how the organization came about?

LaFF is dedicated to connecting families to our local community and community to our families. We are located in Ladysmith and are heading into our 25th year of serving the community.

The organization was founded by a local mom who worked at a family resource centre in Vancouver, and identified a need for a similar centre in Ladysmith after experiencing social isolation with her three little ones as a newcomer to the community. LaFF received funding from the Queen Alexandra Foundation five years after our founding; I was hired as their first coordinator and have been with the organization for 18 years.

Our programming is designed to wrap a blanket of support around the whole family. We do that through daily morning, afternoon, and evening family play sessions, which are designed in alignment with best practices to educate and inspire our little ones. We also bring in different service providers to help serve our families. This can range from a family nurse, to a dietitian, to someone from the Child Development Centre, to an expert on mental health supports.

We offer a food pantry, clothing exchange, a toy and book library, all of which have no stigma attached. Everyone is welcome to access these services or bring items to contribute, and we see it as a perfect upcycling opportunity to reduce waste and meet the needs of those in our community with financial barriers.

Some families who visit our centre are simply looking to build deeper connections to other families in the community and have an outing with their children. Other families are experiencing significant financial struggles, have mental health issues, or are feeling very disconnected from the community.

That’s where we come in – we are dedicated to connecting our community to peer-to-peer support and service providers who can meet each family’s unique needs.

Can you share a story of a particular time that LaFF’s impact was most evident?

One of our local families has been struggling financially for a while.  The husband had been on strike and had not been able to work at his position at the mill for months. They relied quite heavily on LaFF’s food pantry throughout this time. He was finally able to return to work after the strike ended in the middle of February.

The family was just starting to get back on their feet when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the mill closed once again. The mother shared her panic and dread with me – she truly didn’t know how she would feed her children. Despite our food pantry being closed as a result of the pandemic, we’ve been able to offer the family gift cards to the grocery store. The difference this makes in their lives is tangible.

Has LaFF had to adjust any of the programs you provide because of the pandemic? If so, how?

Until the pandemic hit, we were open five days a week and regularly served 500 families through our programs, averaging 105 participants each morning. Unfortunately, our food pantry, clothing exchange, and toy and book library have closed to protect our community.

We are in the process of transitioning many of our programs online to continue to serve our families, including our Mindfulness Matters program, an initiative to increase awareness of mindfulness in our families and provide children with tools to help them focus, manage stress, regulate emotions, and develop a positive outlook. Our Family Outreach Resource Navigation program is also transitioning to online outreach. Through this program, our team acts as a bridge between local services and resources and the families who need them, and identifies and reaches out to vulnerable families who are isolated.

Through texting, FaceTime calls, and Zoom, we are continuing to reach out to our local families around mindfulness and mental health support for the whole family during this difficult time. We’re excited to soon be offering chat rooms where we’ll invite parents to share how they’re coping, areas in which they’re thriving, and how we can offer support. We want to help our families not just survive this pandemic – but find a way to thrive in it.

How can parents help their kids to continue to learn at home despite schools being closed?

I am encouraging parents to take the pressure off of themselves to recreate the classroom at home and instead find opportunities for their children to integrate their learning throughout the day. If you’re cooking, you’ve suddenly got a math lesson on measuring and fractions. Your normal laundry routine can become a lesson in colours and counting.

Spring is a perfect opportunity for children to become thoughtful observers through inquiry- and play-based learning. A walk outside can easily become a science lesson by finding a branch on a tree in your yard and tracking its growth. You can fill eggshells up with dirt, have your child plant a seed, instruct them to draw each stage of the plant’s growth, and you have an art lesson.

You can have your kids interview their grandparents or other elderly relatives and write their story. Your children will develop a deeper connection with a family member who may be experiencing isolation, while taking part in a lesson in geography, social studies, writing, and history.

Instead of focusing on what you think school ‘should’ look like, take this opportunity to integrate learning into your life and pausing together as a family.

From LaFF’s social media accounts, it’s clear that you’re a very positive person. Can you share how you developed such a great mindset?

I’ve cultivated a practice over the last ten years of revisiting what I loved to do as a child. I’ve always loved to dance, get into nature, and be creative. It doesn’t mean I’m a fabulous artist by any means – quite the opposite actually – but I do have a practice of drawing every day. I draw from my heart and my inner child’s perspective. I’m very in tune with my inner child and what is it that she needs from me right now as her grown up.

I get into nature every day. I stop, look up, and breathe. That’s one of my practices to help me be present in the moment. I love using branches to brush myself off, get barefoot, and dig my toes into the ground to feel grounded.

The other piece is I’ve learned is not be scared of my sadness and grief. I’m cultivating a practice of not pushing it away and allowing heaviness to be there and not stuffing it down. I give myself space to feel those feelings and then I release them. I’ve cultivated strong connections with my staff, my friends, and my family members who share these practices with me.

What are some of your favourite resources to help parents stay grounded during these extraordinary times?

I like to remind parents to stop, look up, and breathe. Even if you’re inside right now, chances are, you can see out of a window. Take three deep breaths and notice what you see when you look up. You can assess how you’re really feeling right now. I like to ask myself, “what are two body sensations I’m having right now? And what are two emotions I’m having?”

If you can, try to cultivate the belief that life is working for us and not to us. We’re all in this together, we’re all connected, and we each have this opportunity to ask ourselves what matters most in our lives right now, and to live from that place.

Acknowledge that you will likely feel grief at the loss of your routine and some anxiety about the situation. That is completely normal. We are in a pandemic – those are normal feelings to be having. We shouldn’t know how to handle this. It’s unprecedented; we never learned.

Another mindfulness tool I love is to listen with the senses. Reflect on five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This will bring you back to the present moment, where fear, sadness, and worry cannot exist.

How can parents help to instill a positive mindset in their children?

The most important thing is for parents to take care of their own needs. It can feel difficult to take time for self-care when you have a house full of people at different ages who might typically be at school or work. If you’re not sure where to start, you can take an Epsom salt bath, use essential oils, or simply get into nature and find a blooming branch to bring into your home.

Find a way to play every day in a way that lights you up. If you love to dance, then dance. If you love to draw, then draw. If you love to garden, then garden. Wherever you’re in your happy place, invite your children to be there with you and they will pick up that energy. The activities that light you up the most will light your children up as well.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention that I haven’t asked you?

I’d love for your donors to know the important role they play in making our work possible. I want to express my gratitude to each one of them who helps you carry out your work – which in turn, helps LaFF to make a greater impact in the community.

With your generosity, Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island is able to support programs like Ladysmith Family and Friends (LaFF). You can help us make sure that every Island kid has access to programs like these by donating to our Kids First Fund today.

Donate now to our Kids First Fund