'Friendly Calls' program expands to focus on support for Indigenous communities

A program run by the Canadian Red Cross that supports people with mental health challenges is being expanded, thanks to special funding from Bell Let’s Talk.

The $250-thousand partnership will enhance access to crisis services for people living with mental health challenges.

Friendly Calls began a few years ago and became a Canada-wide program in 2020. Now, a pilot project is starting in Manitoba this spring, tailored to the culture and needs of Indigenous groups, who are often located in remote areas.

Eighty-four-year old Pauline Werbowetsky became a Friendly Calls client a year ago, after a year of the pandemic left her lonely and down in her small community of Roblin, Manitoba.

Daughter-in-law Carmen Werbowetsky, who lives a 10-hour drive away in Edmonton recommended she join the program.

“Before the pandemic, she was quite connected in her community, with her church and other connections in the community but that hasn’t been the way over the past two years,” Carmen Werbowetsky said. “ She’s lost a lot of those connections.”

But now, Carmen can hear the energy and enjoyment in Pauline’s voice during their weekly phone calls. She says the Friendly Calls are often the highlight of Pauline’s week. Plus she knows if mental health problems start to creep in, the Red Cross volunteer is trained to spot them.

“They talk about all the things that are of importance and interest to her and it sounds like they have a lot in common,” Carmen Werbowetsky said about volunteer Catherine Sykes.

Sykes, who hails from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, was paired with Pauline after training and personal interviews. While she thought she would be doing something good for someone else, she says it also brings her joy.

“I ended up getting something like a surrogate grandmother," Sykes said. “She’s just a delight!”

Sykes said she started with 20-minute phone calls to Pauline but now their chats usually last an hour.

She said she is looking forward to training for the Indigenous Friendly Calls program, which is being developed with input from Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers.

“We are really looking at doing cultural safety training which encompasses a few different things,” Red Cross Director of Indigenous Relations, Shelley Cardinal, said. “We are looking at cultural awareness, we’re looking at cultural sensitivity”.

Cardinal said Indigenous culture has a holistic approach to health, in which mental, emotional and spiritual well-being are considered equally important to physical well-being.

But, she also points out that across Canada, there are many different First Nations, with different languages, beliefs and practices. She said offering mental health support to Indigenous communities will require training and sensitivity.

Still, she said, it will not be required that those volunteering with the new Friendly Calls program be of Indigenous backgrounds, but they must listen with care, without judgement and with cultural awareness.