BC CRN’s Regional Mentors form the team that establishes Community Response Networks (CRNs) and provides ongoing local support in the coordination of responses to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect and community development initiatives.
Heather Von Ilberg is a BC CRN original: she was one of the first CRN coordinators, long before BC CRN was an association. She’s a mom, a grandma, a staunch advocate for the community, a night owl, and a serious bookworm, devouring anywhere from three to four books a week. “I spend a few hours a night reading, and I fall asleep at around 3 AM,” she says.
A “free-range kid”, Heather was born in 1957 in Fort Nelson, BC at the time the Alaska Highway was being upgraded. Her father was a teacher at the only school in the township and her mother ran a kindergarten. The couple also owned a trailer court, hosting travelers and workers alike.
“My parents were super busy. This was also at a time where there was no TV, no radio, and no cell phones, though we did have records,” Heather says. “I spent 80% of my time outside with other kids, who were mostly Indigenous and First Nations. We trapped squirrels, built fires, and chewed leather while hearing stories. I left the bush life after grade two when we moved to Calgary.”
The family sold the trailer court and moved to Alberta where Heather’s father went back to university. “This was when I first noticed that the life I had wasn’t ‘normal’” she explains. “No one understood what I was talking about, and everything around me was completely different than what I had known.”
This was also when Heather first learned to advocate for what was just. “We had a really mean teacher who picked on a student for no good reason,” she recalls. “I remember creating a fuss to take the attention away from him.”
When Heather was 11, her family moved to Creston, where she lived until she was 17. After completing high school, she went to Quebec to take a French Immersion course and then proceeded to travel the rest of Canada before starting her studies at the University of BC.
One of her first jobs was at the infamous Woodlands School, or “Woodlands” as it is now most commonly called. “I worked with residents to make those plastic flower decorations people used as wedding decorations. The entire experience was eye-opening,” says Heather. “I have so much admiration for the people who survive those systems.”
She would then continue to become an aid in a support home. “My father drove me back and forth to work,” she states. “Endicott Centre, which is still around today, was a home for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. I always wanted to work with the clients with the most complex needs, and I was there every summer. I’ve worked with the most vulnerable of our community members ever since.”
A job as a teacher’s aid brought her to Fort St. John, where Heather would meet her future husband. They married and had a son. The family would relocate back to the Kootenays, where, unfortunately, jobs were in very short supply. “My husband headed north to work with his dad to build the town of Tumbler Ridge,” she says. “While I was visiting friends in Grande Prairie, I ended up finding a job that started in a week. I went home to Creston, loaded up two dogs, a cat, a baby, and an eight-foot-long freezer onto a flatbed truck that I drove back to Grand Prairie. My poor husband found out afterward that I moved the household.” The family would come to stay in Grand Prairie for 10 years.
Fast forward to the 1980s, Heather was balancing motherhood and running group homes. The 80s were also when the first cases of HIV were reported.
The stigma of HIV affected Heather personally. “I had friends who contracted HIV,” she says. “I remember one story involving a friend’s mother. She contracted the virus through a blood transfusion. When she became ill, we drove her to the hospital and staff came out to see her wearing hazmat suits. The ignorance was appalling.”
“People made no effort to hide their prejudice,” she recalls. “I remember conducting surveys with my staff, asking if they felt they had a right to know if a client had HIV. They all said yes. When we flipped the question and asked if they felt our clients had a right to know if support staff had HIV, they all said no. We needed to do a lot of work and there were no resources to help, so we made them.”
In 1993, Heather’s father died. She decided to move to Nelson to help her mom. An ad in the local paper caught Heather’s attention – an opportunity to work with the BC Public Guardian and Trustee (PGT). “I’ve worked with PGT offices in Alberta, so I applied. I ended up being the CRN coordinator for Castlegar, one of five CRNs that formed a provincial pilot project to support draft legislation related to adult abuse and neglect,” she says. “We were brought to Vancouver every month to consult with PGT staff who were working on implementation.”
Dr. Tam Lundy established a compelling vision for the new CRNs, facilitating conversations that eventually led to identifying practices to consistently support health authorities and communities in coordinating responses to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect cases and supporting those who were affected by it. “There was no clear definition of adult abuse and neglect, and those affected by it didn’t know what to do. The pilot project was an example of how a small group can encourage people to get the help they need,” adds Heather.
In the 2000s, the Adult Guardianship Act was proclaimed, ending the project. Shortly afterward, BC CRN became an association. “Once the project ended, we continued establishing CRNs for years before (current Executive Director) Sherry Baker joined us in 2010. She did what we could not, and that was finding the financial backing that enabled us to keep doing this work to this day. Before Sherry, we floated on the edge of dissolution for years.”
Heather is the last person from that original project team of five to still be directly involved with BC CRN. She has witnessed the people’s perceptions of vulnerable communities, like First Nations and LGBTQ2S+, change over time. She also admits that that BC CRN has evolved…for the better. “It’s been a learning process and we’ve survived some stormy weather,” she says. “I remember participating in a visioning exercise with the team back in 2000, and we brainstormed that BC CRN would be a clearinghouse for excellence for adult abuse, neglect, and self-neglect prevention. We all laughed at how ridiculous it sounded.
“Twenty years later, we are still engaging with passionate, altruistic people who sincerely care about others. This is how BC CRN started and where it needs to stay.”
When asked about what keeps Heather working with the BC CRN after all these years, her reasoning is quite simple: “I stay because BC CRN changes the world. I’m seeing it.”
Heather may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn: @debbiechowabc.
(Photo: H. Von Ilberg)