This past June and July I met an extraordinary person. The encounter was one of those rare events that leaves you unmistakably changed afterwards.
For the past two years I have actively participated in “coaching” a new program in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the implementation of WrapAround—one of Shalem’s signature programs. The program is called the “Intervention and Outreach Team” (IOT), part of a larger community health centre called Nor-West Coop Community Health. I trained their staff in WrapAround facilitation with my colleague Jane Ashmore. The coaching has been a key follow-up part of their training.
IOT staff are doing extraordinary work and getting strong results. Using the WrapAround process, they support Crown Wards in foster care who have high needs. Almost all of them are indigenous, and almost all of them are on the Fetal Alcohol spectrum.
IOT has hired an Elder, a remarkable woman by the name of Ivy. As an Elder, Ivy has been participating on some WrapAround teams in support of the children and youth engaged in WrapAround. She has been so taken with the WrapAround process that she herself took the full four-day WrapAround Facilitator training that I and one of our IOT colleagues gave this past June and July. It was in that context that I met Ivy. And now let me tell you something about her.
Ivy is a great-great granddaughter—a direct descendant—of Chief Sitting Bull. She is proud to say that she looks like him (and she does). When you hear her speak, you feel like Chief Sitting Bull is right there with her. She is over 80 years of age. She is of the Dakota people and is fiercely proud of her heritage. She is a survivor of residential schools and says that all of the awful things you hear about happened there. She ended up addicted, on the street, and a member of a gang. She is also extremely bright—she was an A+ student in the residential school. She says that she had enough of her traditional ways as a young girl that that is what pulled her through. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, became a Director of Treatment Centres, taught at Police Colleges, and has spoken around the world.
I had her present twice at the WrapAround training, and here is some of what she said to the 21 trainees, most of whom came from the mainstream community:
“I have never encountered anything closer to our traditional ways than WrapAround. If you are working with our people, this is what you need to be doing with them.
“30 years ago we were struggling to find language to articulate what we wanted and needed. We couldn’t find the language so we put everything into ceremony. That was good in many ways but probably also detrimental. This [WrapAround] is the language we were looking for. If we had had this language then, things might have gone differently for our people.
“30 years ago the big push was to have Aboriginal people deliver services to Aboriginal people. I spoke against that. The issue is not who is delivering the service. The issue is what is the service being delivered. And they were bad services. They were Western, colonial services, the ones I was learning about in BSW school. So imagine having Aboriginal people deliver Western, colonial services to Aboriginal young people. How confusing would that be for them? I call that ‘soul trauma’.”
Why the resonance with WrapAround for Ivy? Because WrapAround is focused on the participant’s gifts and strengths, not on their pathology or deficits. It’s about “voice and choice”—the participant makes their own choices—not other people’s agendas for them. It’s about family and community, not professional services. She described extraordinary ways in which the WrapAround values and principles are grounded in deep, generational understandings and practices in Dakota traditional ways.
Ivy said a lot more too. She is a grandmother to many people (not related to her), because in her culture everyone needs a grandmother and grandfather. She is very open about sharing her journey and allowed us to videotape an hour of her story and reflections. We are reviewing at that video now and will put it together with her.
I have a lot to learn from her. But I have seldom experienced such affirmation.
Ivy is a woman of extraordinary courage, passion and wisdom. My understanding of life has deepened in some imperceptible way because of our conversations. She is a gift. And I wish her great strength as, in very challenging situations, and in the midst of sometimes unspeakable damage, she works to bring healing—to reconnect young people with their traditional ways, with family and community, perhaps supported now by language she was searching for 30 years ago.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and Co-Director of Wrap Canada’s WrapAround Training Institute.