Economics and politics can make living in Canada’s biggest cities difficult for families. The challenge of finding an affordable home, and accessing the programs and services many of us take for granted; like daycare, playgrounds, or even a spot in a local school only add to the struggle. City living can also be lonely for families, and finding community can be tough. These are all issues Kathryn Laurel faced as a mom in Vancouver, living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband, four-year-old daughter, and seven year old son.
After becoming an active participant in, and eventually leading, a family dinner program at her local neighborhood house, Laurel formed the advocacy group West End Families in Action. The group’s goal is to bring attention to the issues of those raising kids in her West End Vancouver community, and they’ve been very successful getting their voices heard, and creating change.
Laurel works tirelessly to help other families in her neighborhood, while undergoing cancer treatment for a second breast cancer diagnosis. We asked her about her advocacy work, the Vancouver community she loves, and role as a mom.
How did you start doing this?
We were two new parents struggling with the transition into parenthood, and we joined a family dinner program at our local neighborhood house. We found our community there. The dinners were great, with up to 30 people attending, and it was organized chaos. I didn’t know any of these people before I had kids, and likely would never have met them had I not joined that program. I don’t have family living in town, and this felt close to that.
Then, when my son was about two and a half, they lost funding for the program. This coincided with my daughter being born, and me getting a breast cancer diagnosis. They were cancelling the program, and I wasn’t even able to attend, but all of a sudden that support network we’d built in that community became hugely important. My daughter even received donor breast milk for her first year from mothers in the group, the people in this community we’d found literally fed my family.
I brought together a group of us that had been coming to the dinners so that we could apply for a grant to keep the dinners going. A lot of people stepped up, not least my husband who is behind all my crazy ideas — none of this would have been possible without his support and encouragement. We got the grant and were able to get a family dinner going once a month. Despite what I was going through and having low energy, I was really motivated to make that happen. The dinners are so important to my family. We run them from September through to June. Last month we had about 50 people come out, so it is definitely growing.
I don’t see the West End of Vancouver as being an easy place for families to live.
Right. There are a lot of families here, but there aren’t a lot of supports for families. We have the fourth highest density of families for any neighborhood in this city, which always shocks people, but we don’t necessarily have the programming, community spaces, or play spaces that reflect that reality.
And, we all live in these small spaces, so having friends over for dinner is difficult. I can’t even remember the last time we invited anyone over for a meal, because if we do our whole apartment is full. We aren’t living in family sized homes. So, being able to have access to gather and be neighborly at the neighborhood house is vital. Traditionally people might have moved out of the neighborhood once they’d had kids, but the economics of moving don’t make sense any more if you live in Vancouver.
How did this turn into you advocating for West End families?
About six months into the dinners, we decided that we needed to do something about all the things we kept bitching about — such as lack of play spaces for our kids, the fact that our schools are all full, the lack of affordable housing, and the lack of daycare spaces. I had noticed that the neighborhood house had a seniors group, called Seniors in Action, and they had a round-table where they’d discuss whatever issues might come up for the seniors community. I approached our neighborhood house program director and asked if we could do it for families too, and she was so excited, ran with it, and has helped support us. Now we run the West End Families in Action meetings before the dinners, and some people attend both, or just come to one part.
There’s a lot of development going on in the neighborhood, which should take the needs of families into account but often doesn’t. There was a West End Community Plan adopted by the city in December 2013, and we kind of formed because of that, because we noticed that although that plan noted that families had issues, there wasn’t much in terms of action.
Since forming, we’ve met with our MLA, hosted an all candidates forum for the last general election, a tenants union meeting, and we’re making our voices heard. A couple of us were even in the Globe and Mail talking about these issues a few years ago.
How do you manage to do all this given what you were going through?
My treatment ended in May of 2014, and I did go back to work for a couple of years. I have a background in special education in elementary schools. Plus I was doing all the mommy stuff. It was hard to maintain balance. But it was incredibly motivating to me. When you’re doing what you love, it feels necessary and easy somehow. It doesn’t take that much energy.
Do your kids understand what you do?
My oldest does, very much so. Sometimes he’ll be like, “Oh is that for WEFA,” with a little bit of a tone sometimes. But he knows, and he is able to talk about the issues. He was out for a walk with a friend and saw a development permit board, and told the friend, “My mom takes pictures of those all the time,” and before the last provincial election, he had really good questions. My husband and I don’t vote the same, so we have different views, but my son was able to talk about different coloured teams.
My kids love the family dinners. I was re-diagnosed recently with metastatic cancer, and his first question was, “Who is going to run the family dinner, mom?” That to me was telling as to how much it means to him, and I’m so grateful that he has that support in our community. Support networks are everything, and you never know where you’re going to find them, or when you’re going to need them most.
What advice do you have for other moms who are looking to find more purpose in their lives?
You don’t have to do it alone. Find similar people who share that desire to do something and band together. Building that momentum with other people grows it and keeps it alive. I’m not going to be doing the dinners for a little while because I’m going to be immunocompromised, but I’ve set up a roster of people who are going to be cooking the dinners. Find other people’s talents, and tap into them.
What does doing all this bring to your life?
Oh gosh, I guess I feel like I’m making a difference and taking positive action. I always think about that Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” and know that it is true. We’re a small group, and just by speaking up and saying something people have taken notice. It makes me feel like we’re on the right track. That feels very satisfying.
What’s the hardest thing about what you’re doing?
Dealing with the bureaucracy and how slow things go. For example, there’s a broken bench in our school playground, and I don’t know what it is going to take to get it fixed. That is the hardest thing to witness. There are all these dedicated people and it is so slow.
I feel like this is a years long process that we’ve started. I was hoping that we’d see more childcare spaces in my children’s time or need for childcare, but none of this advocacy is going to benefit my family directly. Maybe my grandkids will benefit! Or my children might grow up in a society that is more supportive of families. People who make those financial decisions about what’s important aren’t seeing these things as priorities.
One of the bigger issues that has galvanized our group is that there’s a basketball court at our school playground that has been locked on weekends and evenings for about eight years. We see this a systemic issue. Play has been made criminal. Kids are climbing a 20ft fence to go play basketball, which seems totally backwards. Kids want to play, let them play! I’m really close to getting some clippers and cutting the fence down. It might be my last act before I go into the hospice, I think I should do that!
What do you think that you have in common with other moms?
That I’m not perfect, and I tell my kids that every day. I really wish I was an amazing supermom and had the patience of an angel, but I don’t. I did a parenting class last year actually, and they started with the phrase, “You are good enough,” and that really resonated with me. I’m trying my best.
What other moms do you admire?
When I had my son, I started to look around and see all of the women and realize that through the ages we have just done it. I saw women totally differently. I’d be walking down the street thinking, “You pushed a baby out, and you’re not wearing a gold medal!” I’m just in awe that women do this, and we’re not waving flags about it!
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.