Executive Director Jaqueline Neligan knows LaFF from the outside in.
When she arrived in Ladysmith 18 years ago, pregnant with her third child, and with no connections in the community, Ladysmith Family & Friends was a place that would make her new town feel like home.
“For six months I lived here and I didn’t have a friend,” Neligan recalls. “I would go to the parks and hope someone would show up to play with, and I never met anyone.”
Those who know Neligan would find it hard to believe she could have been in such a predicament, but it doesn’t matter who you are, sometimes circumstances conspire to put you in a spot where you’re feeling isolated, disconnected.
She heard through Ladysmith Parks and Recreation about a group called LaFF Place for Family and Friends, which was meeting in the Boys and Girls Club portable. She thought she’d give it a try.
“Before long I had a group of super-close friends,” she recalled. Her entry into the world of LaFF was a hand written poster that announced: “Thinking of starting a book club. Who wants to join?”
Neligan did. “There were ten of us that put our names down, and those ten people are still my closest friends,” she said.
Since that ‘game changing’ intro, Neligan has sat on the board, opened the doors as a volunteer, then – about 13 years ago – she became LaFF’s first staff person, shortly after its move into Aggie Hall on First Ave. As coordinator she worked to expand the range of services offered, while keeping LaFF’s accessible, friendly profile.
LaFF has grown from 17 families accessing programs two days a week, to 400 plus accessing programs five mornings and one evening a week; but it hasn’t outgrown its roots as a community organization that takes time to listen.
Having experienced the kind of isolation even a welcoming community like Ladysmith can confront a newcomer with, or a new mother, Neligan knows how important it is for organizations like LaFF to be there when someone calls.
“I always say, ‘I’ll meet you at the door,’ so they don’t have to feel like they’re coming into a place that they don’t know,” she said. It isn’t long before newcomers get to know that the folks in the blue shirts at LaFF really live up to Ladysmith Family & Friends’ cheerful acronym.
But LaFF is serious business. It’s mission is to ‘wrap a blanket of support around families.’ That means bringing resources from many organizations and agencies together. “For the past 20 years we have been able to draw on different organizations to come together to act as resource providers within the community.”
LaFF has been the ‘hub’ for families looking for services and support.
A State of the Child Report being put together by Ladysmith’s Early Childhood Partnership will likely confirm information released last year that showed Ladysmith children at a higher degree of risk than most children in B.C.
An Early Development Index that measures children’s readiness for entering school, showed that 42 per cent of kids in Ladysmith were ‘vulnerable in one or more of five areas; the provincial average is 28 per cent.
“That’s quite alarming,” Neligan said.
Encouraging networking between families and service providers through events like the Healthy Start to Learning, which took place at Aggie Hall Friday, May 6, is an important initiative where issues like that can be addressed.
It’s a venue where families and support workers get on the same page and “create those pathways for families to gather the support that they need.”
At 20 years LaFF still has lots to do. It always will, because in a changing world families always need help adjusting. “That’s how things got going, looking at what was available in the community and then starting to build from there,” Neligan said.
Founder recalls LaFF’s start-up
When Ladysmith Family & Friends founder Monica Stieda, who is now on staff as a facilitator, arrived from Vancouver 21 years ago, she had been on the board of a family centre, and she wanted to see something similar here.
“I really wanted that support. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any friends here, so I really wanted that support of a family centre.”
So she got the word out and pulled together the first core group of women who founded LaFF.
“There was a handful, probably six women, that decided, yes, they’d like to do this, and that’s how it started.”
The ‘humble beginning’ of LaFF were in a portable at Ladysmith Primary School.
From that start, two decades ago, LaFF has grown to serve more than 400 families.