'Kindness matters...that is what good care is'
By Louise Kinross
Karen Ward has worked with children with disabilities for over 30 years. I met her 22 years ago, when my son attended a Scarborough nursery school run by Easter Seals (the program is now run by Holland Bloorview). Karen explained how the integrated, play-based program worked. She was so warm and kind and upbeat. Karen hasn’t changed a bit, but she now manages many clinical programs at Holland Bloorview, with a focus on work in the community. We talked about the joys and challenges.
BLOOM: How did you get into this field?
Karen Ward: I took a bachelor of applied science in child psychology at Guelph University. Do you remember Robert Munsch?
BLOOM: The children’s book author/illustrator?
Karen Ward: Yes. He was one of my professors. He was fabulous in how he engaged students to engage young children. He was someone who made me understand the importance of early learning and that I wanted to be a part of it. My first role after school was running a daycare program for children with special needs at Variety Village. It was run by Easter Seals, but located at Variety Village.
BLOOM: And later the nursery schools in the community that were run by Easter Seals became Holland Bloorview programs.
Karen Ward: Yes, in 2003 Joan Ferguson and Sheila Jarvis could see that the children we served in the Easter Seals programs were followed here, and there would be better alignment to have the programs run by Holland Bloorview.
The nursery schools were aligned with participation and inclusion, because they were community programs. I’ve always been interested in community-based education. Whether we have early childhood educators doing play-based intervention with families in their homes, or specialized teams who go into Toronto day cares to provide therapy or help adapt a program, or therapists who support clients who use communication and writing aids at home and in schools.
BLOOM: Why were you interested in children?
Karen Ward: I came from a really large family where there was a lot of family involvement. I think I saw the amazing potential in young kids. I saw they were this wonderful canvas for what could be, and I wanted to be a part of that.
I remember going for my first job interviews and they were to work with typically developing kids. I thought that might be interesting. But then this opportunity at Variety Village came up and I thought it would mean a huge amount of learning for me. I was fascinated by it.
BLOOM: Was that your first exposure to disability?
Karen Ward: No. When I was in my teen years I was a swimming instructor and a lifeguard and I had taught children with disabilities before.
BLOOM: What is a typical day like here?
Karen Ward: You’ve got to be kidding! I’m constantly changing hats. I may get calls from any one of the programs to help them troubleshoot, when we need to make adaptations.
I have amazing teams that run exceptional programs, and I’m honoured to work with them. A typical day is always trying to improve the quality of what we’re doing. One of the big things we’re doing right now is building community capacity.
A lot of my role is making sure I understand politically where we’re going, and who are the internal and external partners we need to be constantly dealing with to push that forward. Now we’ve become part of ambulatory services, we’ve really broadened our scope.
I think early learning, especially, is being recognized as an important enhancement to a lot of programs. For example, when a child under age five comes into our spina bifida clinic, they will see an infant development worker who will help link the parents to supports in the community.
Or if we have a young inpatient here about to be discharged, we will give them information about local services, whether that’s in Toronto or Thunder Bay. People are asking our staff to share their expertise, whether it’s in creating play-based therapies for kids with autism, or making sure literacy and communication are embedded in school curriculums for our clients.
BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge of your job?
Karen Ward: Making sure that we clearly hear what our clients and families need. They drive our programs of excellence. They make us think differently. They’re at the core of everything we do.
BLOOM: What’s an example?
Karen Ward: Well, we’ve looked at revisions to the referral criteria for communication and writing aids. Based on the organization's No Boundaries strategic plan and client and community feedback, we worked diligently to streamline the process. We made it more user-friendly, understandable and easier to access. We talked to families, reflected on best practices and what other agencies are doing, and adapted the criteria.
BLOOM: What's the greatest joy?
Karen Ward: Talking to the parents. No question. Staying connected with the parents over time. I’m known so many clients since they were two or three years old. They’re the ones who have made me change. I’m fascinated by clients and families, and I listen to them.
Then there are the frontline clinicians. I’m in awe of what they do and so respectful of it. I don’t want to be their leader, I want to be their partner. I’m so pleased when we, as a team, make a quality improvement and everybody sees the benefit of it. I’m a real hands-on leader.
BLOOM: What other qualities do you need to be good in your job?
Karen Ward: You need a tremendous level of awareness and of kindness. You need to figure out how to manage people. You may need to make decisions that don’t always have the full support of everyone. However, you acknowledge that concern, and ask that we all just give it a try. We need to keep trying, and to have a vision of what can be better, even though we might stumble along the way. I’m always telling staff that if something doesn’t work, we will work to make it right.
BLOOM: What emotions come with the job?
Karen Ward: Tremendous joy, because I absolutely want to be working here. I do have concern about the future of some of our services for our families, based on municipal and provincial politics. I do worry about how some of our families will access some programs. I do get frustrated that we can’t do more, or there isn’t enough time in the day. I’m often concerned about the wellbeing of the staff. They give 150 per cent, and I’m always trying to keep their health and wellbeing in check. I care very much for them.
I love the busyness of my work. I love that it’s never the same day.
BLOOM: Is there anything you do to manage stress?
Karen Ward: I really love walking. I walk on the boardwalk at the beach. And I have a couple of really good friends, and sisters, that I make sure that I see and spend time with.
BLOOM: If you could change one thing about children’s rehab, what would it be?
Karen Ward: I think we need to broaden what we do. We’re trying really hard to expand our hours and the diversity of groups that we offer. Our families have such a hard time when our hours are rigid.
The other thing I think is key to success, and which we haven’t done as well as we could, is to infiltrate the community. We need so much more of our rehab services in core community groups—in camps, sports programs, library programs. We need so much more of us 'out there,' instead of 'in here.' We need to broaden our arms. If we keep rehab within four walls, it will never be as inclusive as we need it to be.
BLOOM: If you could give yourself advice on your first day, from where you sit now, what would it be?
Karen Ward: Kindness matters so much. I think we need to remember to be kind to everyone—families, staff, each other. That is what good care is.
Because my background is in education, people used to say I’m not a clinician, so how can I manage clinicians? You don’t have to be clinical, you have to have solid core values. Kindness and honesty are two values that are very important to me. I’m very good at acknowledging I don’t know everything. When I need to know about speech, I go to an SLP. If I need to know about occupational therapy, I go to an OT. As a leader, you need to be able to pull from different people to figure things out. Together, we can build remarkable teams and programs for everyone.