Julianna Hettema is quiet and unassuming but with a calm and steady presence. Her soft, impassive exterior conceals a depth of understanding and emotional intelligence that makes her great at what she does, which is working with people. At the age of 15, Julianna supported a friend who was struggling with drug addiction, living on the streets, and getting bounced around from placement to placement in the foster care system. As a result of that experience, she found her calling in child and youth care work. Originally from Fort Langley, British Columbia, she moved to Grande Prairie, Alberta with her partner. Julianna supports youth and families at Sunrise House, Grande Prairie’s only shelter dedicated to young people. Sunrise House has been offering a family reunification and support program since 2012. In 2017 they joined the Making the Shift Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS) to bolster the program and learn more about the Family and Natural Supports (FNS) model. As the FNS worker, Julianna talks to young people about their relationships, helps them communicate better with their parents and natural supports (i.e. important people in their life), and provides needed support to family members and natural supports. 

Grande Prairie is the seventh largest city in Alberta and, in spite of efforts to diversify the economy, is still invested in the oil and gas industry. The region’s dependence on natural resources means that the economy fluctuates significantly, and this volatility has a ripple effect on housing, employment, and public health indicators. Rental vacancies swing back and forth, from 19.8% in 2016 to 5.1% in 2019, which contributes to spikes in the cost of rent (CMHC). In the last Point-in-Time (PiT) Count of people experiencing homelessness (2018), the city counted 228 people who are without a home, which was up from 127 counted in 2016 (City of Grande Prairie). The last few years have also seen an increase in the number of deaths related to opioids. The city had the highest rate of carfentanil and fentanyl deaths among Alberta’s seven cities in 2019 (City of Grande Prairie). Yet people look out for one another in ways that are foreign to urban dwellers, and they come together to save local organizations when they are threatened. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Sunrise House faced losing two of their major fundraisers. Local country music star Tenille Townes reached out to supporters of the shelter. Together they raised over $80,000 by live streaming a virtual concert that benefited Sunrise House and the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee. 

Grande Prairie is also among the youngest cities in Canada, with half the population under the age of 35 (Statistics Canada, 2016). Fifty-six percent of people experiencing homelessness in the city had their first experience as youth (City of Grande Prairie). But services specific to youth are limited. There are only two shelters where youth can go, Sunrise House and Odyssey House (only for women with children). Local organizations are working hard to make things better. One resource developed by Sunrise House and North Region Children’s Services is the High Risk Youth Collaborate Team. This team, which consists of a dozen members who work with youth in various capacities, meets monthly to discuss high-risk youth and provide recommendations and referrals to supports within the community to address their needs. There is also the Breakfast Club, a program that brings youth together to discuss and gain skills in the areas of feelings, stress, self-esteem, and relationships. In response to the opioid crisis, there are free, quality programs for youth and adults addicted to opioids through Alberta Health and a Community Task Force that meets monthly to raise awareness and educate the community on all the work happening on the ground. 

But there is still a gap in services that the community can provide, especially for young people who require instensive mental health support unrelated to opiods. One mother, Lynne*, has done everything she can for her youngest son, Brandon, who hasn’t been able to get the resources he needs.  At a young age, Brandon was bullied by a teacher who was not equipped to support him, and the administration made things worse by dismissing his learning disability.  Home life also became increasingly difficult because Lynne was in an emotionally abusive marriage. Brandon started drinking to cope, and at fourteen, he is now using substances heavily and has violent episodes that put him and his mother at risk. Lynne tried to get her son help: she connected him to respite care through Alberta Health, but the workers were overwhelmed by his complex mental health and addictions needs. She also filed a “PChAD,” a protection order in Alberta specifically intended for minors who are misusing substances. But after a mandated ten-day detoxification, her son received no follow-up or mental health support, and he cycled back into drug use quickly. “I’ve pleaded with the judge not to let him back onto the streets,” she says. While the judge was sympathetic, there wasn’t much he could do.

“Everything is so disconnected… the system is broken,” Lynne says. 

Last October, Julianna got in touch with Lynne when Brandon arrived at Sunrise House during a difficult time at home. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what would have helped,” Lynne says. Julianna has provided her with a sense that she is not alone. “She makes me feel like I’m not crazy. I pay a therapist to do something that Julianna does 100 times better. She’s helped me out as a parent, as a mom, and as a survivor of domestic violence,” Lynne says. Julianna has helped her and Brandon de-escalate confrontations, sort out legal problems, and most of all, she listens. The difference between Julianna and other professionals, according to Lynne, is that “she authentically cares about people.” After lockdown, when Sunrise House had to implement COVID-19 protocols such as decreased occupancy and spacing in the shelter, Julianna met clients on lawnchairs outside their houses. In this time of physical distancing, she felt having face-to-face interaction was important.  

Julianna’s service delivery is flexible and mobile, which is key to keeping youth and family/natural supports engaged. “It’s finding what works for each family,” she says. She sees a wide variety of needs. Some youth have broken relationships and may have suffered or witnessed abuse in the home, some require mental health support, and others have support at home but have conflicts about curfew or are generally looking for more independence from their parents. In cases of abuse, Julianna works with children’s services to inform youth of their rights and discuss a course of action. For those in crisis or with intensive mental health needs, she refers them to a program called Solstice, which is a secured, 14-day placement with one-on-one support managed by an organization called Mountain Plains. For young people who are unable to return home, Sunrise House offers a transitional living program where youth can build independent living skills. When youth don’t know how to process their thoughts, she encourages journaling, play therapy, listening to music, daily affirmations, and goal-setting activities. 

Julianna also works with youth and families on “family contracts.” She created this exercise when she was struggling to show youth that both parties were being heard. Each family member has the opportunity to write out their issues and think about what they want and what they hope to get out of the process. They discuss these individually with Julianna, and then they come together to discuss them as a group. Once they feel that their concerns and wishes have been heard, they work together on a set of family rules that all can agree on, and sign it. For example, a parent lets a youth take a walk to manage a stressful emotional state and understands that their child is not running away, just cooling off. The contracts help to clarify misunderstandings that have led to conflict in the past and the underlying reasons for a person’s behaviours.

“The agreement isn’t going to hold 100%, there will be other arguments,” Julianna cautions, but they help everyone feel that their concerns are being heard and work on small, achievable goals together, such as spending dedicated, one-on-one time with one another to strengthen the relationship. She encourages activities that will help young people feel secure and don’t require as much talking, like cooking a meal together.

Sunrise House provides relief for Lynne and Brandon when they need some time apart. Brandon talks to Julianna sometimes, but he is still figuring things out. Lynne hopes that he will enroll in voluntary treatment for substance use and mental health after they sort out his legal issues. She thinks that he is starting to see how she can be a positive influence in his life, as someone who loves and cares for him deeply. “When he’s applying himself, he’s an honour roll student,” she says. As for Lynne, the FNS program has changed her life. She attributes this to Julianna’s way of caring: “She’s totally authentic, no strings attached.”

Since Sunrise House joined the Making the Shift Demonstration Lab, 200 youth have entered and exited the program. They have seen a decrease in youth returning to the shelter for support and an increase in housing stability, improved relationships, and youth well-being. The program has undergone a developmental evaluation and will soon begin an outcomes evaluation supported by the MtS DEMS research team. For more information about the program, get in touch with Julianna at familysupport@gpyess.ca or Orpah Cundangan, Making the Shift Coordinator at A Way Home Canada, ocundangan@awayhome.ca

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.