Every Wednesday at lunchtime the basement of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre fills with moms, a few dads, and their babies.
According to Shannon Walker, co-ordinator of the Pre-natal Nutritional Outreach Program for the past three years, the program has been going on “forever”. Walker brought her now 22-year-old daughter when she was a baby.
Funded by the friendship centre and Health Canada, the program is for pregnant women and new mothers, who attend until their babies turn one. At that point the group throws a graduation party for the child.
Walker cooks meals that follow the Canada Food Guide, distributes pre-and post-natal vitamins, helps her clients construct a weekly craft, and coordinates special events.
In the summer the program has a plot in the community garden. Walker takes her group outside and everyone helps weed and harvest vegetables.
This month, the program will attend a grayling workshop. People can also sign up to learn about harvesting traditional medicine, or how to make mukluks and vests.
Once a month a community health nurse comes to answer specific questions, and Walker runs a monthly community kitchen to show parents how to make healthy meals. They can take them home and keep them in their freezers.
The program espouses First Nation values but is open to everyone, and it’s busy. But Walker says, “We never have to turn anyone away. Somehow, there’s always enough.”
Walker says the program is more than it seems.
“We create environment, we make delicious food, but it’s the clients who end up teaching each other.” It’s all in the stories the mothers and fathers tell each other.
Walker says if a mother is having a hard time getting her baby to eat, everyone will offer suggestions. She says when parents share experiences it helps them realize they’re not alone.
“People come from all walks of life,” says Walker. “What they have in common is they’re parents.”
She says people come as strangers and leave as friends, and these connections carry into the community.
Walker emphasizes that the program is fundamentally First Nation. This means everyone is accepted and all culture is included – it’s the forefront to the program and anything that builds from that is the First Nation way of life.
She says elders come in and talk about themselves, and the biggest part of the workshops is the sharing circles: “It makes them a healing process.”
For some First Nations families, the program is their only contact with a First Nation way of living. For others, it’s a way to get out of the house and interact with other mothers and fathers.
Walker says the program is important for people who are under-privileged. She says she sees women who are scared when they first come in. They don’t have any support. After their child turns one, they leave as confident parents who play a role in their community.
Walker graduated from the culinary arts program at Yukon College and used to be the head chef at The Chocolate Claim. She worked in politics, with the Ta’an Kwach’an Council in Whitehorse.
But she says the program is perfect for her because it’s instantly gratifying – she can see people changing because of the work she does.
After workshops, she says, people “come home with fish and berries and smell like the campfire. That just does it for me.”