Celebrating two years of successes made possible through Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Grow Grant

When Bereaved Families of Ontario – Midwestern Region (BFO-MR) started work two years ago to expand its grief support group for adults grieving a death by substance use, staff couldn’t have imagined the impact the Ontario Trillium Foundation Grow Grant of $104,100 grant would have, not only for the community it serves, but for the organization itself.

Recognizing the grant, MPP for Kitchener South-Hespeler, Amy Fee stated I am so pleased to see the important work that BFO-MR has been able to achieve with the Grow Grant provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The support and services provided by BFO-MR are making a real and meaningful difference in the lives of hundreds of people grieving the loss of their loved ones. BFO-MR is a vital service in our community and I commend its staff and volunteers for their commitment to helping others.”

The grant helped BFO-MR expand on programming that supports individuals and families affected by substance overdose deaths. “The primary purpose of Grow Grant was to hire an Outreach Coordinator to grow our Living with Loss program for adults grieving a death by substance use,” says Jaime Bickerton, BFO-MR Executive Director. “We couldn’t have foreseen the positive impact this position would have on growing our organization as a whole and we are grateful for everything this grant made possible over the last two years.

BFO-MR’s peer support group for individuals grieving a death by substance use (drugs or alcohol) was underway when Waterloo Region was seeing a significant increase in drug-related deaths. This type of death is highly stigmatized making accessing support difficult if not impossible in some areas. BFO-MR regularly saw people from Brantford, St. Catherines, Orton, and Hillsburgh attend in-person groups. The shift to virtual last year meant an even broader reach with people attending from Amherstburg, Hamilton, Stratford, St. Mary’s, London and Fergus in addition to Waterloo Region and Guelph and Wellington County.

This growth can be directly attributed to the incredible work our Outreach Coordinator Melina Pearson was able to do under this grant,” says Bickerton. “With a staff of two at the time, it just wouldn’t have been possible without her.”

BFO-MR’s goal through the grant was to decrease social isolation for 200 people in the community. This metric more than doubled with 476 people supported through the Living with Loss substance use group as well as other BFO-MR grief support programs, community events and education initiatives.

“This particular support group allows people to find their voice within their grief that is stigmatized in society. It allows people to connect with others who are walking a similar path,” says BFO-MR Program Coordinator Carly Kowalik. “Melina was able to ensure the foundation of this group remained strong, mentoring volunteer facilitators, and consistently offering outside-of-the-group support to members.”

The outreach work completed had further-reaching implications than the Living with Loss group adds Kowalik. “Awareness was raised for all of our support programs, memorial events, and grief education sessions. This enabled greater access to support for people who need it. We feel this awareness also helps to reduce the stigma in society around grief as a whole, and substance use deaths specifically.”

As a small charitable organization, the addition of just one staff person had a significant impact on the team. “Working in grief and bereavement is not ‘light’ work. The presence of another staff member helped to ease the load on the other staff members, counteracting compassion fatigue and burnout,” says Kowalik.

The team at BFO-MR is also grateful that the Outreach Coordinator position is now a permanent one at the organization. “We are thrilled to be able to keep the momentum going and continue the incredible work that was accomplished through this grant,” says Bickerton.

In reflecting on the last two years, Melina Pearson, Outreach Coordinator says she is most proud of the support that has been made possible for this often-marginalized population – parents, friends, siblings, children – who often feel guilt and shame.  “I am happy and proud to be part of an organization and working with a team that has created a safe space for people to grieve and openly share without any judgment or shame. A space that is filled with understanding and compassion,” she says. “I am always so humbled that people openly share their stories, and that they trust me to not only talk about the immense pain of the death of their loved one, but also about the joy the person brought into their  life. I am so proud to be able to open the conversation, to build awareness and help to start to break down the stigma. We are giving people a voice and letting them know as they are grieving, we see them, we hear them, we feel their pain and we are here to support,” Pearson adds.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) is an agency of the Government of Ontario, and one of Canada’s leading granting foundations. OTF awarded more than $115 million to 644 projects last year to build healthy and vibrant communities in Ontario.