Community outreach workers currently on the picket line with other school support workers in Halifax say their role is intergral to supporting students and families in schools under the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE).

There are 44 community outreach workers in the HRCE who work via SchoolsPlus, a collaborative interagency system that works with students and their families connecting them to support within and outside of schools.

As reported by the Examiner, on Thursday the workers learned their union, CUPE Local 5047, reached out to the conciliation officer after a Wednesday evening meeting.

Ellis Pickersgill has been a community outreach worker since September 2021. Pickersgill said the role is quite broad, and community outreach workers focus on numerous areas of support, depending on the needs of the students. For those students under the age of 12, community outreach staff work with them and their families. For students over the age of 12, workers don’t need a family’s consent to provide support to a student. The service is confidential.

“It fills a lot of gaps,” Pickersgill said about the role. “It’s purposely a vague role. Our job is to meet kids where they are and help them to where they need to be, whenever that might be. Something as small as like my pants ripped and I need someone to get me a new pair of pants for the day or to ‘I need somewhere to sleep for the night.’ It’s quite a range of services we might be providing.”

Pickersgill works at Cole Harbour High School where she joined fellow picketers on Thursday. In her role, she helps connect students to supports at the IWK, finds funding for students to apply for recreation program, teaches life skills, or accompanies a student if they have to go to court. She also connects students with food programs or creates food programs in schools. This school year, she applied for a grant and now delivers food boxes to families in need.

She also offers programs in schools that focus on social and emotional learning, consent, friendship skills, empathy building, and snack and lunch programs. And she connects students with resources in the community, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs.

“It’s students and clients, school wide and community, so it’s a lot of things,” Pickersgill said.

‘We do a lot in our day’

Pickersgill said one of the issues community outreach workers are striking over is a permanent wage increase. She said community outreach support workers either work on 10-month or 12-month schedules. Pickersgill works on 10-month schedule and she said the pay starts at $38,000 and goes up to $42,000 after five years.

“We do a lot in our day. We do some pretty intense work that’s emotionally and physically draining,” Pickersgill said. “We love what we do, but many of us have to work second jobs in order to make ends meet for ourselves and our families, which is really difficult for all jobs, but especially difficult for an emotionally intense role.”

Pickersgill said there’s an issue of sustainability, too, and there’s high turnover in the job. 

“To get this job, you need to have a bachelor’s degree and extensive community experience and connections and access to a vehicle,” she said. “The payscale doesn’t reflect the level of expertise we’re bringing to the role, and so a lot of people leave. At the end of the day, this is a relationship-building role and it hurts the students in the community when there’s a lot of turnover. Part of what we’re fighting for is to be able to stay in this long term and keep doing the work we love doing and supporting the kids we really love, but being able to do so in a sustainable way.”

Pickersgill said many people don’t realize this job of a community outreach worker even exists. She said there are a lot of kids “suffering in silence” right now because they miss the support the community outreach workers provide. 

“They are allowed to attend school, but they don’t have anywhere to go when they’re feeling anxious,” she said. “They don’t have a person to talk with. They only disclose these things to the people they trust. People in schools may not even know that these situations are going on with a person and therefore they don’t know how to help them because we’re the ones who have all that information.”

Pickersgill said SchoolsPlus also has a big role in managing issues that happen outside of schools, including food insecurity, income insecurity, parenting concerns, but also crises that happen. She said after Hurricane Fiona, community outreach workers were part of the provincial response to support families who were affected by the hurricane. She said with the recent wildfires, community outreach workers would be working, so some families are going without that support now.

“That is even more urgent than before based on the circumstances,” Pickersgill said.

Similar role at Nova Scotia Health offers higher wages

Jamie Bent has worked as a community outreach worker for the last four years and she currently works at Dartmouth High School. She said community outreach workers also write grants to get funds for programs. She said her team in the past year wrote $315,000 worth of grants to fund food programs.

“If you could summarize that role, I’d say we’re operating our own non-profit organization within the schools,” Bent said.

Bent said Nova Scotia Health has a role in its workforce that does very similar work as community outreach workers with SchoolsPlus, however, the wage for that job starts at $33/hour and goes to $42/hour.

“The role is the same, the work is the same. They’re looking for facilitation, they’re looking for community outreach supports. They’re looking for folks who are going to tie individuals and families to community-based resources,” Bent said. “We are really knowledgeable around all of those pieces. When we’re talking about wage parity, and we want the government to come to the table and have a conversation about that, we’re talking about let’s compare this role when you’re giving NSH a massive amount of money to do the same role that we’re doing within education, it just doesn’t make sense.”

‘We want to see all the kids get back’

Tara Crowe is a community outreach worker at four schools, including elementary and junior high schools. She said she provides supports in school as well as in the community, including mental health supports, parenting supports, help around food insecurity, eviction prevention, and help finding housing for families. She also offers a gender-sexuality alliance, as well as a program to teach students coping strategies.

Crowe said she wants to send the message that the support community outreach workers provide is integral to students, their families, and schools.

“There will be long-standing consequences outside of the education system for our kids who we support,” Crowe said. “Through community services, justice, education, and health, we know well-being and access to support is a social determinant to health and we want to see all the kids get back.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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