Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 27, 2003
First Steps bring signs of hope
Mother's story dramatically shows how CSS helps
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Marie, a former drug dealer, party animal and drug and alcohol addict, is crediting Catholic Social Services' First Step Program, a service for high-risk pregnant moms, with helping her deliver a healthy baby about a year ago.
The proud mother says if it had not been for First Steps her son would have probably been born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a lifelong brain disability caused by alcohol and drug consumption during pregnancy.At least 30 per cent of the more than 14,000 children in provincial care have FASD.
"The First Step program helped me stay away from drugs and alcohol and now I have a healthy son," Marie said proudly in an interview. She cannot be named because that would put her life at risk due to her past associations.
The 21-year-old woman spoke at the launching of CSS's 20th annual Sign of Hope fundraising campaign at St. Andrew's Centre Oct. 21.
CSS is highlighting First Steps program to build support for the campaign, whose goal is to raise $1.75 million to support more than 100 programs offered in 16 communities throughout central and northeast Alberta.
Campaign chair Graham Hicks, an Edmonton Sun columnist, said if the campaign surpasses its stated goal, CSS will be able to expand First Steps, which now has a waiting list.
First Steps has assisted 168 women since it started. Of these, more than 70 per cent have remained alcohol and drug free for more than six months. Program mentors visit the women regularly at their homes and provide them with one-to-one educational, social and outreach support.
There are 13 women on First Steps' waiting list and "we can't help them because we don't have the resources," said CSS president Al Pierog. "We are asking the community for $50,000 above our goal so we can hire more mentors for the program."
It costs more than $1.6 million to provide community services to a child born with FASD until the age of 18.
Marie was attending an Edmonton program for recovering drug users and alcoholics about 18 months ago when she got in touch with First Steps. Once she learned what the program could do for her, "I followed up with them and have committed to staying involved for the full three years."
Marie said she phones her mentor, Laurel Fitzsimonds, anytime she needs advice or a shoulder to cry on. "When I have had struggles with relationships and ethical issues I have had someone to discuss them with."
Marie's life began to crumble at an early age. In Grade 10 she began hanging with a rough crowd and soon she was partying all night long and using alcohol and marijuana. By the time she completed her Grade 12, she had learned to use and sell crack cocaine.
Bartending at a nightclub opened up a whole "new world" of people, dancing and drugs for Marie.
"It seemed like the thrill I had been searching for." Soon she became addicted to crystal meth.
She met a popular crystal meth dealer at the nightclub and began dating him. A month later she learned her new boyfriend was also a member of a fierce local gang.
"Soon I was scared, lonely and feeling threatened by him and others."
She managed to get away from Edmonton and the boyfriend who is still looking for her. But within two months she was back into the same lifestyle - parties, booze and drugs.
"My place became the drop-in and party house and it was never quiet." Drug dealers, drug users and alcoholics would drop in.
Sometimes Marie would go for 36 hours without sleep. She left the job she found because she could make more money running cocaine.
When two of her friends became paranoid and sick with meth psychosis Marie began to realize her life had to change if she didn't want to suffer the same fate.
"This life was all about lies, deceit, violence and addiction," she said. "People claimed to be my friends but when the going got tough they all disappeared. I was scared, hungry and tired. There seemed to be no hope."
Gradually she began to see a ladder in front of her that she felt she had to climb in order to get out of the pit.
"There was help and support on each one of the rungs. It was a sign of hope."
She checked herself into a drug and alcohol centre in Edmonton. Shortly after admission she discovered she was pregnant. When the baby's father refused her ultimatum to "clean up" so they could carry on as parents, she decided to leave him behind.
Marie then reconnected with her parents, who continue to support her and her new lifestyle.
She credited the First Steps program with keeping her from falling back into her former habit of drugs and alcohol. Her mentor not only helped her with medical appointments during and after pregnancy, but also with issues like housing, bills, counselling and schooling.
"Part of my new life included going back to school to become a nurse. I met barriers everywhere I turned as I fell through the cracks in the funding programs," she explained.
"First Steps was able to find a funding body that would help me." Marie recently graduated from an academic upgrading program with a 93 per cent average and is currently applying for admission to nursing school.
Best of all, "my son has no (medical) problems," Marie told the WCR. "He was drug tested when he came out and he came out very clean. He's the healthiest one-year-old that I know."
In addition to providing funding for First Steps, the Sign of Hope campaign also supports programs such as Kairos House for persons living with HIV/AIDS, Safe House and Safe Passages for abused street youth and the Elder Adult Resource/Support Service for abused seniors.
CSS programs serve an average of 60,000 people of all faiths and cultures each year. Sign of Hope wraps up Dec. 15.