Laurel McCalla

Top 40 Under 40 2017

Photography Colin Way

Age: 31

Job Title: Director, Ubuntu Children and Families

Why She’s Top 40: She’s championing a collaborative approach to support vulnerable families in Edmonton

Laurel McCalla is a fourth-generation Edmontonian who always imagined herself living and working elsewhere. But, after travelling internationally as a social-work student, McCalla figured her knowledge of Edmonton would allow her to best support people in her hometown. “This is the city and community that I know – and I know really well,” she says.

After earning her degree, she set out to make the city a better place “for those who are often ignored and unseen.” McCalla’s job history has been eclectic; she’s helped organize the city’s Dreamspeakers International Film Festival, contributed to a province-wide study of childhood development (The Early Child Development Mapping Project or ECMap), and worked as a community organizer and executive assistant to City Councillor Michael Walters. In 2015, she dove into her biggest challenge yet when she was asked to direct a new program for vulnerable families in northeast Edmonton.

Ubuntu Children and Families is a collaboration between Boyle Street Community Services (which is the lead agent), Terra Centre for Teen Parents, Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre. The program gets its name from a South African philosophy: “It speaks to shared humanity . . . it’s the idea that you become yourself by sharing yourself with others,” says McCalla. “That spoke to us in terms of our approach: Wanting to do more together and not work in isolation.”

Ubuntu works with families who’ve been involved with Child and Family Services because of problems of drug addiction, domestic abuse, child abuse or neglect. Ubuntu staff work with government caseworkers to help families get the supports they need to become healthier and happier, in the hopes of keeping children with their parents. Services can include anything from parenting coaches, mental-health support, finding affordable housing, building financial literacy to helping with job hunting.

About 80 per cent of the families who come through Ubuntu’s doors remain intact as parents seek help for their problems. The hope is that with enough support, parents will be healthy enough to break intergenerational cycles: “That’s what drives me to give my heart and soul to this,” McCalla says.

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