New Beginnings

Summer is coming to an end, the air is getting cooler, the leaves are starting to change, and students of all ages are heading back to the classroom and to new beginnings. This fall, I too, am embarking on a new journey. I have just joined the Legal Health Clinic as a Legal Health Check-up Worker focused on Wellington County. My role will be to conduct outreach and administer the Check-up (https://legalhealthcheckup.ca/) all across Wellington County, from Clifford to Puslinch and all the communities in-between.

Growing up in Fergus and now residing in Centre Wellington I know the challenges of accessing supports from rural Ontario. As a rural resident I also come to this position with a background in youth justice issues, having sat on the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities for two years. The role of Legal Health Check-up Worker is allowing me to combine my passion for youth justice with my love of rural Ontario.

I look forward to taking on this blog and following in Sarah’s footsteps, who envisioned it as a platform to ensure transparency.

“Our mission is to make this project as collaborative and engaging as possible, so it’s only fair that you, our community, gets to see inside the kitchen to see what the cooks are up to, so to speak. We want, above all, for the Check-Up to be a useful tool for anyone who uses it, and you can’t tell us if it is or not if you don’t know what’s happening!”

She also saw the blog as a way to gain feedback.

“We want yours! Whether you’re someone who uses legal services, a social services provider, or an interested community member, we’d love to hear from you. No project that doesn’t invite ongoing input and critique is worth its salt. So don’t be shy – tell us your ideas about how the Legal Health Check-Up can best suit your needs.”

This is only my second week as a Check-up Worker and I am already excited by the new contacts, and community members I have met during this time. I look forward to even more interactions and learning opportunities during my time in the County.

-Maddy

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Springing Forward

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It’s my second-last day as the Legal Health Check-Up Worker here at the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County, and there is a lot to reflect on.

Earlier in the week members of Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German foundation that provides financial support for public health initiatives (among others), visited the Guelph Community Health Centre, where our clinic lives, to learn about the service hub model we’re part of. Among the visitors were educators, health organization executives, journalists, and a mayor. They seemed fascinated, taking photos and collecting pamphlets, while our Executive Director Anthea explained  our philosophical and practical approach to our work and our place in the community. It is exciting to be part of something that others admire want to learn from.

One visitor, before leaving, asked our receptionist Jacqueline: why, in a place so wealthy, are there people living on the streets, people using drugs to cope without support? Their incredulity, as Jacqueline and I talked about afterward, was a poignant reminder that we still have much work to accomplish. We (collectively) are all too accustomed to dramatic income and social disparity, so much so that it sometimes takes an outsider’s eye to refocus our attention on its absurdity. Though of course if we listen deeply to insiders, those experiencing the brunt of that inequality,  we’ll hear this message loud and clear too.

In a happy twist, the Clinic recently received funding to continue the innovative work of the Legal Health Check-Up project for another year. Jacqueline will soon be moving into the Legal Health Check-Up Worker position as I move on to another project promoting mental health and trauma-informed practice literacy in community legal clinics and social service agencies. We are all excited about what this next phase holds in store. So far we’ve explored and implemented the use of technology to give better access to our services to those in the rural parts of our county. We’ve built solid relationships with tenacious community workers and we’ll be out and about in their spaces more often, meeting clients where they need us to be. We are moving deliberately toward a more holistic and more immediately responsive way of working. It all makes a lot of sense, and I’m optimistic that it will improve access to justice – and by extension to better health – in our community.

I am grateful for the trust, teachings, and dedication of our clients, community partners, and project mentors, and I can’t wait to see where the project goes next!

Happy spring to all of you.
Here’s to new beginnings!

 

 

Making Meaning

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“Can you believe it’s February already?”

This familiar refrain echoes everywhere I go these days. And no, I really can’t. The Legal Health Check-Up project has been on the go since June; that’s 9 months of exploring how this tool can be useful in Guelph and Wellington county. So you may be wondering, what’s going to be born out of this gestation period?

We’re excited to explore this!

Here are some of the community development initiatives we’re looking into. These ideas have been developed as a result of working closely with our trusted intermediaries – community partners who’ve been trying out the LHC tool – over the last 9 months to hear what would help their clients get better access to legal services and other community supports:

  • Participating with a group of agencies in planning the community services’ response to the arrival of Syrian refugee families
  • Increasing outreach in our community, including holding regular drop-in hours at some locations
  • Offering more Public Legal Education sessions, more often, which make legal information accessible and easy to understand
  • Exploring the use of the Ontario Telehealth Network and other technologies to allow people for whom it’s difficult to get to our office (due to transportation service gaps and other factors) to meet with a Legal Clinic caseworker via video at their local Family Health Team office

I’m going to be meeting with our intermediaries again soon to hear more of their ideas. Then we’ll get to working on an evaluation of the pilot phase of the LHC in Guelph and Wellington County, and will be happy to share what we learn.

Also exciting is the roll-out of the LHC project across a broader geographic area. Nine more legal clinics in Southern Ontario are beginning their LHC pilot project adoptions, and we met with them a couple of weeks ago to share our experiences of the project thus far. It was particularly satisfying for me to see several social workers and social work students present – their skills and abilities are so useful in implementing a holistic approach to legal clinic work (though I may, as an RSW, be biased about that). The 9 clinics’ anxious excitement about the unknown parts of how the LHC can be put to use in their communities reminded us of how much we’ve learned these last 9 months. I encouraged everyone who asked for my advice to just be open to what comes. So much of what we’ve learned, we didn’t predict. We will continue to offer them our support and experience, for what it’s worth, as they move forward too.

Have you had your Legal Health Check-Up yet? Click here to try it now!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checking in on the Check-Up

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It has been a while since I’ve posted an update, but never fear – lots is happening with the Legal Health Check-Up project in Guelph and Wellington County!

We’ve had more than 90 people complete all or part of the Legal Health Check-Up online so far, and about 16 of those have then requested service from us. A community partner told me today that some people just want us to know about what’s going on in their lives without asking for assistance, and that’s quite ok. I’ve also had some great, robust conversations with individuals who have asked for our assistance and as always, am amazed at people’s resourcefulness in the face of huge barriers.

The project has also been an exciting new way to engage with other agencies in our region who are doing fantastic things in the way of advocacy, community development, and support. I met with most of our intermediaries in person last week, and we’ve been strategizing on ways to improve access to legal services for their clients. Stay tuned for what we think are some very exciting new ways of working together to bridge geographic and language barriers in particular.

Have you had your Legal Health Check-Up yet? Try it today!

 

 

Ready, set, grow!

imgresWe are excited to announce that the Legal Health Check-Up pilot project has begun in Guelph and Wellington County! With the assistance and support of our community partners, we hope this tool will help people access legal and community supports faster and more efficiently.

We are proud to welcome the following agencies on board, and are grateful for the work they do:

  • Rural Wellington Community Team (made up of outreach workers from the Family Health Teams, Canadian Mental Health Association, and Community Care Access Centre)
  • East Wellington Community Services
  • Immigrant Services Guelph-Wellington
  • Anishnabeg Outreach
  • Brant Avenue Neighbourhood Group
  • North End Harvest Market
  • Guelph Community Health Centre

Have you had your Legal Health Check-Up yet? Click here to get started!

The Legal Health Check-Up as an extension of the Legal Clinic’s knowledge base

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We had an interesting staff meeting this morning in which we discussed how the Legal Health Check-Up will help us extend our reach into communities in which we don’t have the capacity to be physically present. The reality of small agencies is that we are often asked to do more than we can handle, while maintaining high-quality service that is, and the Legal Clinic is no exception. We constantly strive to balance our obligation (and desire!) to provide legal outreach with the reality that we are a busy staff of only seven.

Our hope is that the Legal Health Check-Up will provide community workers with strategic questions they can ask their clients to help them determine what kind of legal issues they’re facing. Then we’ll then be able to help provide information, guidance, and useful referrals. We hope that all of this results in community workers feeling more empowered as they get more familiar with the kinds of conversations that can evoke important information about legal problems in their clients’ lives.

We can’t be everywhere at once, but we can (and will!) disseminate our knowledge into the community so that figuring out what problems may have legal solutions doesn’t have to just be the domain of lawyers, paralegals, and other legal office staff. This knowledge should belong to everyone, and so want to share it!

Not another form to fill out, please!

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I met with two very hard-working women at the Brant Avenue Neighbourhood Group (NG) last week and was astounded by the many varied services they offer to their community. After being invited inside, I found myself in the living room of a townhouse-style apartment, surrounded by backpacks stuffed with school supplies for local kids and shiny new sneakers laid out to be claimed. They told me about the team of volunteers who show up to cut vegetables every week so that neighbourhood kids can have healthy snacks at school, the totally free community carnival that the NG hosts, and the way-finding they – the staff – do to support people to get the assistance they need with everything from accessing the NG’s food cupboard to helping with tenancy problems.

I’d invited them to participate in the Legal Health Check-Up pilot project, and before I’d arrived they did a test run of the check-up in demonstration mode on the LHC website. I heard from them what I’ve heard a few other times when meeting with community agencies – interest, tempered by the concern that this project is “just another form to fill out” that will take too much time for too little benefit to clients who use it.  Another session of data collection with no follow-through. No answer to the question of ‘so what?’

They were pleased to hear that they – and their neighbours – can pick and choose the sections they need to fill out and use it in any way that best suits their needs. The Halton Legal Clinic has made sure to emphasize the flexibility of the tool they designed, and this is a relief to already overworked and over-papered community workers. We know that small agencies in particular need fewer bureaucratic obstacles in the way of their work, not more. ‘

Unlike other projects I’ve worked on that have had clear goals – deliverables, as the jargon goes – this endeavour is a pilot, a let’s see what happens when we reach out and ask these questions kind of experiment. Giving community workers an idea of what questions to ask to help determine potential legal issues that – as we know – can have snowballing social and economic effects on people made vulnerable by systemic barriers seems like it will help them in their day-to-day work, but we need to hear that for sure. I’m looking forward to hearing other participants concerns and ideas at our training sessions on September 29 and October 6.

Just get on with it

Things have been pretty quiet in project world this past month as many people have been off on vacation.  I recently returned a from my own trip abroad, and – like many of us who work in this field, I’m sure – feel conflicted about the absolute privilege it is to take time away from work to travel across the world for leisure. Visiting a country whose water isn’t safe to drink from the tap, and many of whose people have come to Canada as refugees because it’s too dangerous for them to live there – even twenty years post-civil war – is humbling, and I don’t take it for granted. I learned so much about resilience and perseverance, particularly via the thriving, thrilling Indigenous cultural renaissance taking place in Central America these days.

What does that have to do with the Legal Health Check-Up? Well, that’s what I’m contemplating today as I gear up for more meetings with community partners and plan the intermediary training to put the tool to use in our region. What have I brought back with me that is useful?

I think the main thing is to get on with it. I tend to be cautious and measured, to take loads of time gathering research and opinions and thinking about what the very best way to do everything is. The initiative and energy for change that I saw in some communities I recently visited inspired me, though. As one of my former clients loved to remind me, navel-gazing is a privileged pastime that many people don’t have time – or patience – for. There is no perfect solution. Just get busy!

My colleagues and I were talking about how September still feels like back-to-school time for us, and a time of new beginnings. So in that vein, let’s do this, LHC!

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Street mural in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala depicting the transformative power of health education in that community.

Artist unknown.

Tough but fair questions from community workers.

Recently I’ve been welcomed into several meetings with potential partner intermediaries – the community agencies we hope will help us distribute the Legal Health Check-Up – that have challenged me to think critically about what we’re asking of both agencies and their clients when we invite them to participate in this project. Luckily, critical thinking is one of my favourite pastimes!

One agency’s hard-working outreach worker was upfront with me, saying that she didn’t see the benefits to her clients or staff of participating in the project. It seemed like more work than was worth it. She wasn’t being negative; we talked a lot about the extensive work that her team is already doing to assess and provide support for their clients’ legal and social needs, and I agreed with her in the end that this project likely wouldn’t be the right fit for them. It’s good learning for me to hear the reasons why the LHC might not work for them, and helps me take into account potential problems or complications that might need working around for others.

Another agency’s staff asked great, important, and not always straightforward-to-answer questions such as, “What do you do when someone identifies a need that there’s no solution for?” and “If I’m asking my clients to share this amount of personal information, what is the benefit to them? Why should they do this?” Of course, participation in the LHC is voluntary, but it’s not enough just to say that. We have to constantly strive to make this project the most accessible and beneficial it can be. These questions sparked vibrant conversation about the usefulness of data collection, and the importance of making sure that if we’re asking people to share their personal and sometimes difficult stories with us, we’d better do something really helpful with that information. I’m not a researcher, and I hope I’ve picked up enough best practices from the generous communities I’ve worked with and learned from in the past to do all of this in a participatory way.

There’s so much to consider, as I mused in an earlier post, in a project that intends to be collaborative and useful. When I get back from my vacation in mid-August I’ll be meeting with some more neighbourhood groups in Guelph and, in the county, a family health team, and seniors’ centre to gather more input. More on those partnerships soon!

Won’t you be my neighbour?

The beautiful and lush community garden at Waverley Drive P.S.
The beautiful, lush community garden at Waverley Drive P.S.

I visited Waverley Neighbourhood Group this morning in addition to a few other organizations serving two of Guelph’s “priority neighbourhoods,” Brant and Waverley. I’m always pretty amazed at what determined people do with small spaces and limited resources, and this group (along with our city’s 11 other neighbourhood groups) is no exception. When I dropped in, staff were busy entertaining and preparing snacks for a big circle of happy looking day-campers in a small room, and they have year-round programs running to support families in their neighbourhood.

As has been my experience with every community partner I’ve talked to about the Legal Health Check-Up, Waverley’s community programmer seems really keen to learn more about the project and is hopefuly it will be useful to the families who access their services. She also invited me to visit the North End food market, an exciting venture providing free access to healthy, fresh food in that area, which I’ll be doing in August. I can’t wait!

Later this week I’m meeting with representatives from Anishnabeg Outreach and the Community Resource Centre of North and Centre Wellington about getting them on board. The more people I meet, the more excited I feel to get all of these creative minds in one room to figure out how to use the Legal Health Check-Up to its full potential here in Guelph and Wellington County!