Non-profit’s new Brandon location aims to help vulnerable people get help close to home

A non-profit organization that offers support services for vulnerable and marginalized people has opened a new location in Brandon, where staff will work to address mental health service gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a dozen Turning Leaf Services staff are now supporting 20 clients in Manitoba’s second-biggest city, said Jennifer Biggs, the non-profit’s director of supported independent living, after the official opening of its Brandon location Friday. 

Turning Leaf works with people who have cognitive impairments or mental health needs, or are experiencing homelessness or other vulnerabilities.

“Oftentimes, if there isn’t a service in a region, then they are brought to Winnipeg to get the services that they need, and that’s a bigger city and it’s a transition for them,” Biggs said.

“My preference would be to help people stay in the community where they feel safe, where their families are, where their friends are, and where the services are that they’re familiar with.”

While its new location officially opened its doors on Friday, Turning Leaf staff began working with Brandon clients in February. The non-profit has been operating in Manitoba since 2005, providing services in Winnipeg, Morden, Winkler and Portage la Prairie. It also operates in Saskatchewan.

An Indigenous drummer sings while playing a hand drum.
Glen Pratt performs an honour song for Turning Leaf staff at Friday’s grand opening. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The non-profit works to help its clients live as independently as possible, by helping them with things like finding safe housing, addiction treatment or other issues.

The new space in Brandon will be used for day programming and working with drop-in clients.

“It’s always nice to plant roots in a region so the community understands that we’re here and we want to stay,” Biggs said. 

Turning Leaf CEO Barkley Engel said the non-profit works with the province of Manitoba’s Community Living DisAbility Services for referrals. Those referrals help Turning Leaf decide where to set up shop, he said.

Helping people stay in their communities creates the most effective possible programming, Engel said.

A man stands in front of a brick building.
Barkley Engel is the CEO of Turning Leaf. Most communities in Manitoba struggle with inadequate addiction services, he said. ‘We need to be part of a solution for that.’ (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“We believe that individuals that struggle with mental illness and intellectual challenges should have the right to make choices,” Engel said. “They have to be able to be in the driver’s seat of that healing process.”

Brandon is not immune to the mental health and substance use issues seen elsewhere in Manitoba, Engel said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on mental health, there was often less access to mental health care services, he said.

That made providing services to vulnerable and marginalized people in Brandon a “natural fit,” said Engel.

“Most concerningly, the folks we’re working with have long histories of trauma. They’re self-medicating. They’re using meth and alcohol and other narcotics to heal and manage the pain that they’ve experienced,” he said. 

People who live with mental illness or intellectual challenges, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and also struggle with addictions often fall through the gaps in the health-care and social services systems, Engel said.

“There are inadequate addiction services for these people in almost every community in Manitoba, and I know that we need to be part of a solution for that,” he said.

“When we’re working with these folks, they’re all interested in getting help. They all want to have strong relationships and get onto a path of change and we’re just happy to be that for them.”

He hopes to see Turning Leaf grow in the Brandon area and expand the services it offers to clients, including introducing harm-reduction addiction services in the future.

Brandonite Andrea Waldner has been working with Turning Leaf support staff three or four times a week since February.

Waldner is currently unemployed due to health issues and was referred to the program through a support worker.

A person leans on a counter.
Andrea Waldner at Turning Leaf. She says thanks to the non-profit’s help, she is now ‘in a really good place.’ (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Staff help her with tasks like cleaning, budgeting and grocery shopping, and help answer questions that arise about working with her landlord or other issues. 

“If I don’t understand something then they’ll either help me out with that or see if they can help me out in other ways,” Waldner said. “Now I’m in a really good place.”

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