It’s one thing to be a popular restaurant or hair salon, but it’s another thing entirely to be St. Albert’s favourite service club. Putting aside whether or not it fits the true definition of that category, the Stop Abuse in Families Society (SAIF) is more than a club — way more, in fact.
But it's true the one thing it does in abundance is serve.
It serves people at low points in their lives, counseling them through the traumas of their abusive relationships.
For executive director Areni Kelleppan, it offers her and her staff the chance to reflect on the value of being recognized widely enough that the public knows where to go when they need help.
“Hopefully, we’re always able to help whoever reaches out to us so we never think that people in the general public will recognize us for that work. We just hope that they know they can send people or that they can come to us when they need us. It’s a little bit different to feel that people notice this,” she said after learning the organization was voted St. Albert's favourite service club in The Gazette's Readers' Choice Awards.
“They knew us. That feels really good.”
SAIF has been in the business of promoting healthy, safe, respectful relationships in St. Albert, Sturgeon County, and the surrounding area since 1989. Their clients are in distress through family violence and other forms of domestic abuse.
To serve and to help as many people as it can is its mission. That's why it offers myriad programs and services as a sombre but necessary reflection of the society in which we live. Not even a pandemic can stop it from that task. One of its newest offerings, called Child Play Therapy, actually debuted during COVID's first autumn.
Ever adapting to the community's needs, SAIF is also on the verge of two new programs. The first is Family Counseling, which is expected to launch this summer. Because of the pandemic and the status quo of our ever more stressful world, everyone’s family dynamics have become “really fraught,” Kelleppan said.
"The stressors on families create a whole wealth of complicated dynamics. A lot of people have been looking for family counseling, but family counseling is really expensive."
All of its programs and services have been free to access until now thanks to donors and grants. Its Family Counseling program will be the organization’s first fee-for-service offering, though it is working toward a subsidized model to make it more accessible.
"It can be so meaningful to have a few sessions to just help you communicate through some of the challenges that you’re dealing with," she said. "A little bit of family counseling to support the dynamics of the family can really turn things around before it gets out of hand."
Recently, SAIF was also granted the ability to offer the WiseGuyz program, an evidence-based, healthy sexuality and healthy masculinity program for teen boys in Grade 8 and 9. Launched by Calgary's Centre for Sexuality, it has “wonderful outcomes,” she said. The in-school program will be conducted over the next two years in partnership with the City of St. Albert.
She said it will help to counter the instances and the effects of toxic masculinity that so often are at the heart of domestic abuse.
"We have long talked about boys and men struggling with how to be a good man and what that looks like, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls and some of the trauma that they’ve faced," said Kelleppan. "I always think that getting to them young is always so great. You can change the trajectory of their entire lives, and all of the people that they come into contact with in their lives. Young boys are struggling out there. We talk about all the negatives, but this is a positive. This is talking about positive masculinity, being empathetic, and being a great partner. Being a great young man: What does that mean?"
Kelleppan said there are cultural shifts at work, the symptoms of which are being shown in SAIF's intakes. This year, it saw more male-identifying clients than female ones in its adult counseling program for the first time. Men have long been the major perpetrators of domestic abuse, so to see them coming forward as the receivers of abuse signifies a 180-degree turnaround. While that flip has since mostly flipped back, she said, it still means anyone can be an abuser.
The Readers' Choice award notwithstanding, Kelleppan said the greatest validation comes from the people they help, not their partners or former partners. Don't take SAIF's Google reviews at face value, she said, suggesting they originated from people who were dissatisfied their partners ended their relationships after receiving the organization's services. She hopes people will understand those complaints probably come from somebody in pain, someone deeply traumatized and who is lashing out. It's not a true reflection of the quality of SAIF's services.
"There are many clients — many, many clients — people will come up to us out of the blue, don’t even share their name, and it’s been months or years and say, ‘You saved my life,’" she said.
"It is incredibly validating for the work that we’re doing. We are safety planning. We are preventing death, and not just a whole bunch of trauma."