As the head of a major Calgary-based aid organization, Shelley Heartwell dedicates her time to helping vulnerable people. But in her spare time, Heartwell — who became involved with social work through her interest in recreation — is also making a difference in the lives of many other people.
Growing up, Heartwell played a lot of sports and coached for kids softball teams. Initially, she was working in recreation with the Boys and Girls Club and with people with disabilities.
“I think recreation really sees a value of how you can engage a community and it just lead me into social work and now into the health component. It’s really about — I guess I really have always enjoyed supporting people,” Heartwell said.
She then moved on to working with young offenders at the Strath Green Development Centre and then with Mcman Youth and Family Community Centre where she started various foster care and child welfare programs.
As she continued to work in child and welfare programs, she noticed that something was missing within the support programs.
“I had worked in various programs, delivering support to kids in care and I really realized that a piece that is often missing is the health piece,” Heartwell said.
This is what prompted Heartwell to establish the Youth and Health Centre at the Alex. It is a program that tailors to both the health and social needs of vulnerable youth.
“It’s really providing a multi-disciplinary team to be able to keep these children in their homes or even being able to get the parent healthier so they can take care of their kids.”
At the same time, though, Heartwell has also opened her own home to those in need, becoming a foster parent to children in care.
That role began when she was at the Boys and Girls Club and received a call, two weeks before Christmas from the staff who ran the group’s foster care program.
“They said: ‘Shelley, we have this little girl who needs a home and there’s not really any beds left in the city,’ and they asked if I would take her,” Heartwell said. “So she came into my home that night and I was told not to have any contact with the family, which I thought was very sad as this family was disconnected from this little baby who was about a month old and it was over Christmas.”
Over the Christmas season, Heartwell put together a photo album of the child. The album was to be given to the family of the little girl once they met.
Upon meeting the family, Heartwell found that they had immigrated from Nicaragua and they had been afflicted by poverty.
“This family cared and loved this girl to bits. They’re biggest issue was that they were in poverty. They didn’t have some of the resources,” Heartwell said.
With the support of Heartwell as well as her family members, within six months the little girl was back in her family’s care. Since then, Heartwell has maintained a strong relationship with the family, is a god parent to the family’s second child, and is now helping a young mother and her six year old child.
At two years old, the daughter had been taken into child welfare. Heartwell and her organization had spent eight months getting the child out of welfare and back to her mother. Even after successfully reuniting the mother and daughter, Heartwell continues to provide support to the family.
“We were going to keep her in our lives and her mom so we’re not just a support system to this little girl who is 6 years old now, but we’re also a support system to the mom,” Heartwell says.
According to Heartwell the mother has graduated hairdressing school and is excited to move forward with her daughter.
“At the end of the day this little girl wants her mom and that’s what is so important is how we make sure that we keep the connection to the family.”
But Heartwell also values looking at the whole picture, to see the whole person and provide them with the proper resources and support they need.
“That’s what we really try to do in our centres is to make sure that it’s not just about giving a person a home, but it’s about wrapping a team of supports around them to make their life even better. And I think we should never say: ‘No we don’t do that here’, I think if we don’t do it than we better find out how we can get it to them.”