From modest beginnings, much can grow. That’s what Family Services of Greater Vancouver learned looking through its history in preparation for its 90th anniversary Feb. 15.
The organization dates back to 1928 when it became the city’s first non-profit social services agency for families, set up in response to a survey of child welfare services in B.C. that identified the need.
Dr. GF (George Frederick) Strong was a key player in its beginnings, according to CEO Karin Kirkpatrick, while Mary McPhedran was the founding executive director for what was then known as the Central Welfare Bureau. A donated second-hand car was sold for $25 to fund its launch. The office was in Vancouver’s Dominion Building, and it opened its doors with a single case worker.
Fast-forward to 2018 — Family Services of Greater Vancouver has grown to more than 500 employees and it provides more than 90 social service programs in 11 locations across the Lower Mainland.
Its founding mission was “to provide exceptional services to strengthen family life, family wellbeing and healthy community life,” Kirkpatrick said.
“That continues to be the mandate, but the social issues impacting families, and even the definition of family, has changed over these 90 years. So the kinds of services and the kinds of supports provided to families has changed in response to what’s happening in the community.”
In its early years, the organization offered “private family welfare work,” which is what’s known today as marriage and family counselling, and it also maintained a social services directory.
In the 1930s, it increased its role in community planning and cooperating with other health, welfare and planning services. Its mandate expanded to include research and advancement of professional education.
But each decade presented different challenges that required different responses.
Kirkpatrick said one of its former executive directors, Deryck Thompson, was particularly innovative in his thinking and development of programs in the ’60s. He was focused on family advocacy and education, but in a progressive and open-minded way during an era marked by a rise in divorce and single-parents, which challenged the notion of the traditional family.
“He had a great way of drawing attention to the importance of social services and the needs of families at this time,” she said.
One of Thompson’s headline-grabbing quotes in 1967 was: “It is an odd commentary on our social values that four years of agricultural college is required to raise pigs, but how to raise a family or build a marriage is left solely to chance, intuition or sheer blind luck.”
These days, FSGV’s programs are wide-ranging, focusing on areas such as supporting homeless youth, trauma counselling, domestic violence survivor support programs, financial empowerment workshops, community kitchens, as well as programs for isolated seniors and newcomers to Canada.
Kirkpatrick said its low-barrier housing and support services for homeless or street-involved youth are offered through its Directions Youth Services, which now has four facilities including a 24/7 drop-in centre.
Its domestic violence survivor support program, which runs in collaboration with the Vancouver Police Department, is the first of its kind in Canada, she added, and one that other provinces look to for training and inspiration.
FSGV also has three social enterprises. One is the Family Services Employee Assistant Program, which provides companies with short-term problem resolution counselling for their employees. Proceeds go back into FSGV’s community programs. Another is its 20-year-old Adoption and Pregnancy Counselling Agency. Last year, it placed 15 children with new adoptive families.
FSGV also operates Keeners Car Wash, which provides employment and skills training for youth aged 18 to 26 who have barriers and difficulties finding work. Some of them come through Directions Youth Services, which also runs a pre-employment program for homeless youth called Street Youth Job Action (SYJA). Youth learn job skills and have contracts with Vancouver Coastal Health to do needle pick-ups in downtown Vancouver and street beautification such as graffiti removal.
The organization’s mission today is “creating brighter tomorrows,” Kirkpatrick said, which encompasses providing hope and tools to people so they can become self-reliant.
“The philosophy has really been to provide excellent front-line services and we’re not just trying to solve one issue. We’re constantly evolving and adapting alongside what’s happening in the socio-economic landscape and reacting to those social issues.”
Kirkpatrick isn’t sure what the future holds, but said the opioid and homelessness crises are among the ongoing challenges it’s dealing with.
“We have to wait and see what’s going to happen in our communities, and I don’t see that the homelessness issue or the opioid crisis are going to be resolved in the near future,” she said. “But what we’d like to provide as an agency moving forward is advocacy work on behalf of the sector and on behalf of the people and the families that we’re supporting.”
While the organization’s anniversary is being marked on Feb. 15, Kirkpatrick said celebrations will be held throughout the year to celebrate FSGV's nine decades of existence, including posting stories about its history on social media and holding community picnics.
“This is going to be a year of talking publicly about the impact that we have and celebrating in a much more public way,” she said.