Communitas Supportive Care Society

A Community Where All People Are Equal

Caring for the humanitarian needs of others is a high calling, one that carries a strong sense of nobility, compassion and personal care. These qualities are routinely displayed by the special people and organizations who dedicate their life’s work to assisting those who live with challenges.

Such is the case with a very unique organization in British Columbia known as Communitas Supportive Care Society. Communitas is a not-for-profit, faith-based organization delivering specialized care in a number of communities across the province to those living with developmental, intellectual and mental disabilities. The organization, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year, has its roots in the Mennonite Central Committee and pursues a Christian understanding of community. While this informs its work with those who are often stigmatized and marginalized by society, Communitas supports and empowers people from all walks of life, regardless of faith, social standing, race or ethnicity.

Communitas Supportive Care Society’s provincial office is located in Abbotsford. Karyn Santiago became CEO of Communitas in March of 2013, taking over the position from Steve Thiessen, who retired after 30 years.

“It has been a big learning curve for me and a great opportunity,” Santiago begins. “I am deeply humbled by this experience as I get to know the people we serve and see staff members living out the values and vision of our organization.”

Most of Santiago’s career has seen her serve in the non-profit realm both overseas and here in Canada, making her an ideal candidate to take over the leadership role at Communitas Supportive Care Society. Just before her arrival, Santiago worked for Mennonite Central Committee in their financial department. Prior to that, she spent five years in Uzbekistan in Central Asia as director of finance and operations for an organization doing grassroots development work.

“My background is mainly business, financial and administrative so those are the things that sort of launched me into the current role that I am in,” Santiago says.

Three Primary Regions

Communitas Supportive Care Society is based in three regions of B.C. and a number of communities within those regions. On Vancouver Island, their efforts are concentrated on the North Island in Courtney, Campbell River, Comox and Black Creek. The Okanagan region has activity in Kelowna and Penticton along with exploratory expansion in several other communities. In the Vancouver and Fraser Valley regions, the organization stretches from Richmond and Vancouver all the way to Chilliwack and Hope In total, the organization employs about 400 staff members and engages several dozen volunteers.

Communitas can trace its roots back some 40 years to a small organization called the Samaritan Society for Comfort and Cheer. They consisted of a group of families who wanted help establishing homes for their children who lived with a disability and didn’t want them being sent off to institutions.

“They were parent-initiated and they approached Mennonite Central Committee B.C. in the early 1970s and said ‘would you help us’,” Santiago says. “In 1974, MCC B.C. opened the first group home that focused on nurturing people towards greater independence in a supportive faith-based environment.”

In the 1980s, the provincial government invited MCC B.C., along with other agencies, to assist with the deinstitutionalization of provincial facilities for individuals living with a disability. The goal was to reintegrate people from these facilities into group homes – a paradigm shift that resulted in significant growth, providing more service opportunities to more residents and clients. By 1992 MCC B.C. was growing rapidly and so a separate legal entity called Mennonite Central Committee Supportive Care Services was created.

In 2007 the name was officially changed to “Communitas” – a Latin noun meaning “a community where all people are equal.”

A Wide Variety of Services

Communitas Supportive Care Society provides services ranging from 24-hour residential care to skills-based day programs to respite care for families. It also provides services to people with mental health needs.

“We work a lot with mental health and mental wellness,” Santiago states. “From the 1990s till now, we have provided support, including everything from 24/7 care through to supported independent living and we run programs like Wellness Recovery Action Plans (WRAP), a program designed to help people facilitate their own wellness plan.”

Communitas also provides peer mentoring support and a member-led clubhouse.

“Many of our peer support workers have come out of mental health issues or challenges and they are now providing support to others who are in the middle of those same kinds of challenges,” Santiago explains.

For those who are recovering from mental illness and are seeking to get back into the work place, Communitas operates social enterprises. These include recycling, shredding and janitorial services, where people are trained and gain work experience in a way that is designed to reintegrate people into the work world.

Other services provided by Communitas include Complex Care for Seniors, and supports for those living with Acquired Brain Injury and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Matthew’s House

Communitas has just launched a brand new program called Matthew’s House that celebrated its grand opening on November 14th, 2013. Matthew’s House provides care and respite for children between the ages of four and 18 who are dealing with complex healthcare issues, giving families the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate. Matthew’s House is fully equipped with medical necessities like overhead track systems for transferring and is fully wheelchair accessible. It is a beautiful home-like environment with a multi-sensory playroom and outdoor playground. For many families, Matthew’s House will make possible family activities that were once out of reach.

An initial gift of $1.0 million was given by the provincial government and land was donated by the city of Abbotsford. This, along with the generous donations of many individuals and business, has meant that the building is fully funded. Moving forward, it is impressive to note that the current operating budget will be privately funded with no identified government funding.

“That’s $1 million a year that we’re looking to fundraise from the community to keep it going,” Santiago says. “It was seven years in the making and was the dream and vision of Matthew Froese’s parents – Doug and Andrea Froese – that there would be a place for parents to step back and be refreshed and be able to rest knowing that their kids are receiving really excellent support and care in a safe environment.”

Matthew’s House has joined forces with two other partners on what is called the David Lede Campus of Care – Canuck Place and Abbotsford Hospice – with all three delivering support services to people in the community who are in need.

Surviving Economic Challenges

The global economic downturn of 2008 happened five years before Santiago’s arrival at Communitas but she believes her organization is in the same place that most not-for-profit community agencies are in with respect to those who deliver care and services to people.

“Regardless of whether you’re in the business sector or the government sector, the reality is that the wealth of funding present in the 1980s and 1990s is not the same as we moved into the 2000s and 2010s,” Santiago remarks. “That core funding is diminishing and I think it is happening across all kinds of sectors, whether it be health, education or the social service sector that we are in.”

What this means is that organizations like Communitas are being challenged to find new and creative ways to continue to provide care and support for people with disabilities. This might mean donor-based funding or looking at grant options from other sources such as private foundations or fee for services.

“We certainly have that challenge ahead of us and I think that the trend is going to continue,” Santiago says.

Core Values and Vision

Santiago is also pleased to see that government models have moved towards giving people who require services and support for disabilities a choice as to where they want to receive their services. With Communitas Supportive Care Society steeped in strong Christian values, it’s certainly one of the major factors differentiating it from other organizations that provide similar services.

 “We find that a lot of people that choose our agency do so because we are faith-based and because their values are obviously similar to ours,” Santiago says. “It also means that when we approach how we provide care and support, we approach it from a specific paradigm.”

Communitas’ vision and mission statements guide this work. The society envisions “communities of fully human, interdependent citizens” and that it will be a “place of belonging, growth and contribution.”

Honouring a person’s spirituality is one of the values that inform the way in which Communitas delivers its services. Emphasis is also placed on the sacredness of life, practicing good stewardship, relationships built with gentleness and respect, and a strong commitment to communities where individuals are treated with dignity. These values inform a philosophy of person-centred care.

“This means that we operate from the needs of the person and reflect that back in how we provide the care and support for them,” Santiago says.

Dedicated, Compassionate Employees

Communitas is proud of its caring and dedicated employees who embody the high standards that families have come to expect. While Communitas is a faith-based organization, those employed by Communitas reflect a wide variety of faith expressions. Yet all those who work here have accepted the values that shape the way the organization does its work, they actively live these out every day as they interact with the people they serve.

“Our staff members have bought into the vision, mission and values of Communitas,” Santiago says. “No matter where in the organization they are working, there is recognition that we are all enriched by our interactions with each other in loving and caring communities. We are committed to the ideal that all people have intrinsic dignity and worth.”

While Communitas Supportive Care Society holds its staff to a high standard of care delivery, it is also committed to supporting its employees and helping them to have a positive work experience.

“We feel strongly that our employees’ involvement with Communitas should also be an opportunity for growth, that their work experience should be meaningful,” Santiago says.

To that end, all efforts are made to ensure that employees have the training and equipment they need to do their work. Executive staff are also committed to giving tangible expressions of appreciation to each of their 400 staff on an annual basis.

It’s that ingrained philosophy of spiritual caring that has allowed Communitas Supportive Care Society to grow and be so incredibly successful in helping others in their journey through life.