Blazing a trail to support Aboriginal families and communities

Rona Sterling-Collins, with her son Wyatt and husband Don, has discovered that a sense of community can come from many places.

When Rona Sterling-Collins’s son Wyatt was diagnosed with Autism at age four in 2001, Rona found there were few resources available to parents, especially in a rural community like Merritt, B.C., where she grew up on her family’s land and now resides with her family.

“I do workshops and program supports on this subject now because when a family finds out their child has a diagnosis, they may need supports,” says Rona. “Back then I wanted to find one person in Merritt who had training in Autism but no one did. I used to call 1-800 lines and moms who had children with Autism would answer these lines, so I had someone to talk to.”

To overcome this, she became involved with organizations and groups throughout B.C., and spent years learning and networking. Rona and Wyatt (and his sister Janessa) are members of the Lower Nicola Band, which is part of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation. She became an advocate for Aboriginal children with special needs and helped develop programs for Aboriginal families in the interior of B.C. called Aboriginal Infant Development (AIDP) and Aboriginal Supported Child Development (ASCD).

Rona is the Aboriginal Supported Child Development Consultant (part-time) in the Merritt area, supporting Aboriginal children and families with special needs. She is also the Regional Advisor for the Thompson – Shuswap – Cariboo Region, where she supports AIDP, ASCD and AECD programs that serve Aboriginal children and families.

Rona also started her own consulting business in 1996 after completing her Master’s Degree in Social Work, called Rona Sterling Consulting. She works primarily with First Nations communities and organizations in various capacities that include workshops, strategic planning, policy development and community engagement projects throughout B.C.

She’s now using her knowledge and insights to keep Wyatt connected to his community. After Wyatt graduated from high school last June, he has been busy with activities that have built connections and helped him grow as an adult.

“Throughout the years we’ve had to find supports, and in a rural community it’s more challenging to find supports,” says Rona. “Now that he’s transitioned to adult services with CLBC, programming has changed. CLBC has been good about coming from Kamloops to meet with us to help get his program up and running; I feel like CLBC has been very supportive of us.”

Encouraging creative pursuits

Rona put together a holistic program for Wyatt with his support workers by mapping out various aspects of a fulfilling life, including: social/cultural; recreation and physical; communication; life skills; literacy/math; work experience; and art and music.  Wyatt receives direct funding supports from CLBC, which is an individualized funding option. In this form of support, funds allocated by CLBC are paid directly by CLBC to an individual or his or her family member or representative for the purchase of supports and services. Rona has set up tailored supports for him that suit his interests. She approached resource people in Merritt whom Wyatt could spend time with to tap into their skills, and she manages a schedule of support workers who join him for various activities in the community.

For example, Wyatt had started showing artistic talent in high school and a natural gift for mixing colours, so Rona approached her friend and colleague who is an artist to work with him on his art. She has generously worked with Wyatt in the fall of 2017 and winter of 2018. Together they tried different art mediums with him and found that he loved abstract painting because it gave him the freedom to paint without constraints. She encouraged him to display his art at a gallery and show, so they approached the local art gallery, Nicola Valley Arts Council, about having an art show.

“His art teacher and his support workers have really helped us in this process,” says Rona. “It’s helped make this transition from school into adult life a little easier.”

Wyatt proudly displays some of his works at his recent art show in Merritt.

His art show at the Courthouse Gallery in March, called “Wyatt’s World: An Abstract Expressionists Unique Perspective in Fluid Imagination,” was overwhelmingly positive. Eighty people attended the opening day, and many others throughout the three weeks it was showing. Some of his paintings and art cards were sold. Rona could see that the show made Wyatt proud.

The Merritt Herald newspaper profiled Wyatt in a story about his art show. Rona notes that Wyatt was already popular and well-known in Merritt because he’s laidback, funny and cool, but the art show made him even more well-known. He’s even been stopped in the grocery store by people who recognized him to congratulate him about the show.

“Art helped give us focus this year,” says Rona. “I think there is potential for him to go further with his art. I think his art is going to evolve and continue to grow.”

Next, Rona and Wyatt are planning to display his paintings in an art walk where local businesses in Merritt will display artwork for the month of July. He’ll continue with his other activities, like his piano lessons from his aunt, to grow his talents. And as much as he loves his home community, they are open to the possibility of an education program or employment in a larger Centre.

Meanwhile, Rona continues to help other Aboriginal families to make sure they have the supports they need in their rural community.

CLBC’s Indigenous Advisory Committee

CLBC has an Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC) with representatives from across the province to provide information and advice to CLBC staff. The IAC provides valuable input into how CLBC can improve service delivery to Indigenous people. The CLBC 2017-2020 strategic plan includes a goal to enhance relationships with Indigenous communities and to develop staff and organizational cultural competency. Members of the IAC are working with CLBC to raise awareness in Indigenous communities about CLBC supports and services, and Wyatt Collins will be featured on an upcoming poster.

Learn more about the Indigenous Advisory Committee here.

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