Make Health Happen YEG: Building a NGO Partnership Out of My Basement

The Story of Make Health Happen YEG

Let’s rewind to September 20, 2018: I was not exactly sure why or what I was doing trying to tackle the entirety of the Canadian health care system as a 19-year-old, under-certified, and exceptionally clumsy university student.

I may not have known much, but I knew I was passionate about making the healthcare system more accessible for the people around me. I knew I could get some money to pursue a project, and I knew I could draft up a (kind-of) presentable proposal. Indeed, it was the perfect opportunity for me to do something that was either a terribly stupid, or exceedingly amazing. I tried to figure out how to put together something that was at least reminiscent of the latter. A few weeks later, Make Health Happen YEG was born.

The Concept of Health Mentorship

To be completely honest, it took a long time to filter out what I wanted to do with this program. After a few months of trying to sort myself out and getting grilled by various panels of executives at the organizations I wanted to partner with, I realized I wanted to build a program that:

  1. Addressed the underlying Social Determinants of Health that contribute to the overall well-being of refugee and newcomer populations in Edmonton. First time encountering the Social Determinants of Health? Click here for a crash course.
  2. Worked on capacity-building with immigrant and refugee families so they could make informed health-related choices when navigating the complex Canadian healthcare system. Coming into a new country where you don’t know the language/culture then being expected to navigate the healthcare system is like being thrown into the ocean without knowing how to swim.
  3. Encouraged the development of cultural competency in future healthcare providers so they can provide high-quality care to their future patients and clients. It’s something that everyone should think about, and that everyone should care about. We’re not all the same, so we shouldn’t all be treated the same. Everyone deserves a chance to be heard and understood.

That’s when I came up with Health Mentorship: partnering refugee or immigrant families with health sciences students. The students help the family adapt to life in Canada, navigate the healthcare/education/social services systems, access language programs, and discover other community resources. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person interested in making a difference in newcomer health (a big shoutout to ASSIST, EISA, MCHB, and my Health Mentor team for making this happen).

Rejection, Police Checks, and Business Cards

I would be living a lie (or maybe living in heaven) if I told you that pursuing this project has been 100% smooth sailing. So instead, let me list a few of the challenges, tips, and tricks I’ve learned from starting a grassroots organization:

  • Not everyone will like your idea, and you’re just going to have to live with it. People will criticize your program, pick out every flaw, chew up your thoughts, and spit them back out in your face. It sounds terrible, but it will help you develop your ideas and confidence in the long run.
  • Figure out your program logistics. Scheduling meetings through email is terribly inefficient. Do yourself a favour and get people to sign up for time slots using Google Calendars. Make sure you have Cloud storage for your team to access relevant documents. Everyone needs to be on the same page, all the time.
  • If you’re looking for volunteers, be picky. Find the people who want to be there, are driven to be part of the program, and are on top of things. You don’t want to get halfway through your program and realize that people don’t respond to any emails you send them. Even worse, you don’t want to end up firing someone from a volunteer job.
  • You should have some business cards on hand, even if you’re still a student. You should probably bring a few extra copies of your project proposal too. Walking into a room full of executives to pitch your project and being asked for a card is fine. If you have a card, and if you know how to pitch. Having to tell them you don’t have a card is a (tad bit) embarrassing. Running out of project proposals to hand out? You may want to excuse yourself from the meeting before you turn beet red.
  • Liability is huge. Always factor in anything that could legally go wrong, especially if your NGO partnership involves working with vulnerable people. Police checks are a good place to start.
  • You’ll have to talk to people, even when you don’t want to. When you finally find people willing to invest their time, effort, and funding into your project, don’t let them down. Make sure you communicate your progress regularly (even if that progress means you’re in a bar with a huge tab, wondering what you’re doing with your life).

Was It Worth It?

I must say that activism has sucked the life out of me. It’s hard work, it takes a lot of time to make lasting impact, and sometimes I just want to pull my hair out. Yet, at the same time, I have to say I couldn’t feel more fulfilled. Best of all, I’m happy to say that some of my team members feel the same way (well, at least judging from their quotes on the right).

And in case you’re wondering, Make Health Happen YEG is still a thing (I haven’t pulled out all of my hair yet). You can find out more here.

It was rewarding to be able to help connect a family to the services they need. Through this program I’ve learnt a lot about the health care system of Canada/Alberta.

Katie, Health Mentor Volunteer

I really enjoyed learning about the variety of different services offered to recent immigrants and refugees upon their arrival in Canada! I think this is a part of healthcare that is little known and more people should definitely be educated about it.

Anonymous, Health Mentor Volunteer

– Emily Q

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