Rural Albertans: Reaching Out

Wellspring initiatives aim to support all Albertans through the cancer experience

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

In Alberta’s biggest cities, facing a cancer diagnosis can be an isolating experience. In the province’s smaller cities and towns, where care and support are more limited, that feeling is often even more acute. Two new initiatives from Wellspring are hoping to change that.

For 13 years in Calgary and three in Edmonton, Wellspring has offered non-medical support for cancer patients, survivors and their families and caregivers. Wellspring runs programs ranging from educational talks to exercise and art classes, while also providing a space for patients and their families to connect and experience community support.

In partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the organization is now looking to bring some of that support and programming to rural Alberta with two three-year pilot programs. Wellspring Edmonton’s Regional Cancer Support Initiative is targeting remote or underserved communities in northern Alberta and Wellspring Calgary is looking to connect with communities in southern Alberta to co-create sustainable cancer-support communities with its Southern Alberta Strategy Discovery Project.

Why rural Alberta?

Both Wellspring Edmonton CEO Martin Dugas and Wellspring Calgary director of programming Sheena Clifford say they regularly get calls from communities throughout Alberta seeking to build supports for their community members living with cancer. Dugas says rural and remote patients have often heard about the programs offered by Wellspring and wonder how they might be able to access them.

“In regional and rural areas of Alberta, support is often absent. It is essential for communities to build their resilience, not only for cancer patients, but for their immediate family, as well,” says Dugas. “If we don’t take that on, we’re leaving out an entire population.”

What will it offer?

Wellspring Calgary’s pilot launched this January, and the team is in the process of connecting with communities, specifically in southern Alberta outside of the city of Calgary, to learn what supports are needed. Clifford hopes her team will be able to offer a minimum of three pilot programs a year. The programs will be driven by what people living with cancer indicate they need, and won’t duplicate what already exists.

“We are looking at offering programs over the phone and virtually, using technology so that people can access the type of programs we know are beneficial closer to home,” says Clifford. Currently, Calgary offers Money Matters, Peer Support and Transitions Support Coach programs over the phone.

Wellspring Edmonton’s pilot program, which will launch in 2020, is still in its initial stages. The team there is also connecting with regional and rural communities in northern Alberta to understand exactly what supports to offer.

Dugas says the ultimate goal goes beyond providing outside programming, to actually building skills and knowledge and connecting resources within rural communities themselves.

“We cannot only attach communities directly to our programming to learn from our experts, but we have a chance to pilot classes and workshops where leadership is being run from the regional communities,” he says.

Why does it matter?

Even though the types of support provided by Wellspring are non-medical, Clifford says studies show that alleviating issues such as isolation can have positive medical effects for cancer patients, while also improving their quality of life.

“One of the huge benefits at Wellspring is to meet others who are going through a similar experience,” says Clifford. “It’s an opportunity to connect, not feel so alone and learn from each other.”

Both initiatives will help bring some of those benefits to a broader swath of the province. Despite starting with just a few pilot communities, Dugas believes Edmonton’s Regional Cancer Support Initiative can grow initial connections and partnerships into a widespread regional and rural cancer support network.

“If we get the ecosystem right, we’ll be able to build on it and sustain it so it is constantly growing the supports,” says Dugas. “The end result is that we have a regional cancer support community that thrives.”

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