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Story

How a fund can support families’ mental health.

.Holland Bloorview’s Family Support Fund helps client families with more than equipment costs.

Cheryl Peters’ relationship with Holland Bloorview began in 2010, not long after her two-year-old daughter Jillian was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Jillian became a client, receiving both inpatient and outpatient care, and Cheryl joined the hospital’s Family Leadership Team as a mentor and eventually, a year and a half ago, as a member of the review committee for the Family Support Fund (FSF), which helps over a thousand families a year with financial and other supports.

Shortly before Jillian’s fourth birthday, Cheryl realized she needed to use the FSF herself to help pay for ankle-foot orthoses for her daughter. “They’re valued at $1,800, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay that,” she says. “I had another child and finances were tough, so that was the first time I accessed the FSF.” A few years later, during the pandemic, the family was evicted from their home, causing serious impacts on their mental health and well-being. “It was a very difficult time,” Cheryl says. “My colleagues found out what I was going through and urged me to apply for the new FSF that was helping with rent and groceries. And that was an immense help; it took a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Then, last year, a growing Jillian needed a new wheelchair. “The insurance company decided she was only allowed one per lifetime,” Cheryl says. “So I reached out to the FSF, and I found out that the Coriat family had donated funds specifically for wheelchairs. It’s something my daughter needs on a daily basis, so that was huge for us.” She adds that Jillian is now 15, and doing great as an active high school student.

The positive impacts of FSF support on the mental health of families like hers were outlined in a presentation by Cheryl and Adva Budin-Mercer, coordinator of client and family funding on Holland Bloorview’s Client and Family Integrated Care team, at last fall’s Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) conference.

Their report examined the social determinants of health that affect child mental health, like poverty and limited access to healthcare, and the impact of evidence-based programs like the FSF, which alleviates those stressors by offering families financial aid and comprehensive support. The FSF team also advocates for policy changes to reduce inequities in the healthcare system.

“We split our presentation into two parts: the introduction was mine, and the testimonial was Cheryl’s,” says Adva. “We highlighted how services like ours can relieve mental health concerns and lead to more positive outcomes in a tumultuous world. And we had great feedback—I think because a personal human story came at the foot of a lot of clinical data and grounded it in reality. People really resonated with Cheryl’s story.”

 “I was able to speak about the impacts of the FSF on mental health, not just my child’s but our whole family’s,” Cheryl says. “There was a lot of feedback thanking me for sharing our story and being candid about our mental health struggles, because it’s not something that’s talked about enough. Even though things are changing, it’s still taboo. And having a child who’s also dealing with mental health struggles, I think it’s important to talk about it openly, because the more we talk about it, the better people will understand.”

Cheryl says that being in situations where she needed the FSF has also helped her to advocate for other families in her role on the fund’s review committee. “Actually using the FSF helps me understand the needs and the numbers we’re seeing, and help get approval for things like rental equipment,” she says. “It’s important because I can speak for other families having troubles in the community.”

“The FSF is the biggest hospital-based charitable fund in Ontario, yet we are still considered niche,” says Adva. “For a lot of families, Covid is not over in terms of financial and mental health impacts. That’s why it was important to go to the CMHO conference. We have to network and spread the word so people can see that these services exist, and they do have amazing impacts.”