Building a Foundation

Terra Centre helps young parents become self-sufficient

At age 19, Matt Smith (not his real name) was looking forward to finishing high school. He had been working hard for what seemed an eternity to complete his final classes, and finally, the end was in sight. But in the spring of 2011, Smith received news that would change his life forever: he was going to be a father.

In the span of a few weeks his life transformed. Although he was young, he took a mature approach to the news. He didn’t know what challenges lay ahead, but he bravely prepared for the next chapter in his life.

“My ex and I had split up, so I didn’t find out that I was going to be a father until about five or six months along,” he says, “but still, there was no question in my mind that I was going to be there for my son.”

On a brisk day in March, Noah Smith was born. Seeing his son Noah’s (not his real name) precious face staring up from a swaddle of baby blankets, Smith was overwhelmed with emotion. It was a moment of great responsibility and growth. It was the moment that he decided to do everything he could to give Noah the best life possible.

I’ve struggled here and there because it’s tough being a single parent…

“I knew what I had to do – so I just did it. I dropped out of school, and started working to be able to provide for him,” he says.

No longer in a relationship with Noah’s mother, but determined to be a good father, Smith sought full custody of his son. It was a long and arduous process, but after two years of tireless effort, Smith was granted full custody.

To say it has been a challenging path for Smith would be an understatement. At times, the obstacles he faced seemed insurmountable, with frustrating bureaucracy and red tape around every corner. For some, these challenges would mean giving up, but for Smith, it meant an opportunity to persevere, learning along the way.

“It’s challenging because as his sole guardian, I still have to handle everything for Noah, as well as try to provide for [us]. Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still learning more as I’m going,” he says.

Three years ago, Smith was introduced to the Terra Centre, a local non-profit that provides support and resources for parents under the age of 25. The organization offers the Edmonton region’s only program for young dads, which helps young fathers with both parenting and financial independence. Through the program, Smith received guidance in finding government services, health-care, and housing. The program can also help with employment searches, school enrolment, and navigating the legal system.

“I’ve struggled here and there because it’s tough being a single parent, but Terra Centre has helped me out a lot over the last few years,” he says.

Last year, Smith’s challenges intensified when the car he was traveling in was t-boned at an intersection. Lasting injuries have left him unable to work for over a year, adding to his financial struggles. Recently, he needed to request a copy of Noah’s birth certificate in order to apply for healthcare coverage. Unfortunately, to get the certificate, he needed photo ID of his own, an added expense that would have been tough to manage on his tight budget.

“For something as small as a piece of ID, people may not think of it as a really significant issue but if you don’t have proper identification sometimes you can’t move forward to the next steps,” says Karen Mottershead, executive director at Terra Centre.

While many funds provide support for continuing education, childcare, or other long-term costs, few provide for one-time expenses that may act as a barrier for young parents to get on the path to financial independence. But thanks to Edmonton Community Foundation’s Single Parents Independence Fund, Terra was able to provide funding for Smith’s photo identification.

“The Single Parents Independence Fund is invaluable in addressing gaps in available funding from other sources,” says Derek Dicks, Smith’s family outreach support worker at Terra, “Having valid photo identification removes significant barriers in accessing services not only for the parent, but for their children, as well.”

The fund provides financial support for low-income parents in a variety of areas, including education, childcare, or any related expenses that might be acting as a barrier to their financial independence. Mottershead explains that most other community funds don’t help parents with emergency situations or smaller things like damage deposits, registering for classes, or photo IDs. “But these expenses are really important aspects of creating stability. So even though it might be for something small, it makes a huge difference to our parents.”

After getting photo ID, Smith was able to get a copy of Noah’s birth certificate. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. And though the road ahead is still peppered with challenges and obstacles, wins like this make the young father confident that he will continue to build a better life for his family.

Now Smith is preparing to become a father for the second time as he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby. He credits Terra with helping him become a great parent, and is looking forward to using these skills well into the future with his growing family. “With Terra’s help, I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “And it’s just getting better from here.”