By Amara JanssensAngie CaLigiuri works the front desk at the Sunshine Inn as many days per week as she can. She greets hotel guests warmly with her contagious smile and bubbly personality.
While at work, she anticipates one of her children calling her to tell her that they are either sick, or injured, or both… yet again.
CaLigiuri has three children, two requiring special care. Luca, nine, was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that causes spastic paralysis and impaired muscle coordination on his right side. Sarah, 12, has a learning disability and suffers from short-term memory loss, headaches and is constantly falling. They both have chronic asthma and are susceptible to illness, such as ear infections.
Her eldest daughter, Marissa,18, graduates high school next month and will be attending UNBC this fall.
CaLigiuri is a single-mom who struggles. She is the physiotherapist, the doctor, the tutor, the one who takes her kids to emergency and the one who has to work to support her family financially. She is so grateful to have such an understanding boss who allows her to have a flexible work schedule, meaning she can take time off without worrying about losing her job if one of her kids falls ill.
Luca and Sarah’s father, despite multiple Supreme Court orders, has never paid child support. To date he owes his two children $152,363.22.
Sarah and Luca’s father left them and their mother shortly after Luca was born in 2004. At that time, they were living in the United States, as CaLigiuri’s ex-husband was working for an oil company. Abandoned, CaLigiuri decided to come back to be with her family, here in Smithers.
Shortly after moving in with her mother, Claudia Sia, CaLigiuri decided Alberta would be much better for her and her family. At that time in 2005, Alberta was helping single moms find jobs and was subsidizing their wages, CaLigiuri said. She landed a job as a chair-side dental assistant.
However, Luca was getting constant ear infections, throwing up all the time, and bumping into things, at less than one year old.
After leaving a doctor’s appointment in Red Deer, Alberta, Luca went blue on his mother in the middle of the street. He was not breathing, and had no pulse, she said. A stranger “came out of nowhere” called 911 and resuscitated Luca.
“My doctor at that time said ‘I think there’s something wrong with him but I don’t know what, but it’s still normal, don’t worry about it, keep going.’ But [Luca] kept getting sicker and sicker, never well,” she said.
“I had to stay home, and eventually I ended up losing the job because they said ‘you’re not here I have to give the job to somebody else.’”
While Luca became increasingly ill, middle child Sarah was falling behind in school.
“She wasn’t able to sound out words,” her mother said.
The stress was unimaginable, and after losing her job, CaLigiuri and the kids returned to Smithers to be with CaLigiuri’s mother.
After repeated doctor visits and a trip to B.C. Children’s Hospital for a MRI, Luca was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
“It took two years from the time I moved back to the time he was diagnosed,” CaLigiuri explained with tears in her eyes. “Luca was almost three.”
At that time, she was on social assistance.
Being on social assistance was an experience that CaLigiuri wishes to never have again.
“It was like I was the deadbeat,” CaLigiuri said.
She felt constantly judged as a poor mother.
“People assume you are bum, that you don’t want to work, that there’s something wrong with you.”
CaLigiuri did not stay on social assistance for very long, partially because of how she was being treated and that she quickly passed the income threshold to qualify.
If a family makes more than $900 per month they are cut off, Sia explained.
Marissa’s father was paying $500 per month in child support for Marissa, and CaLigiuri was making more than $400 per month at her previous full-time job at a store in town.
Along with no longer qualifying, her family no longer has legal assistance needed to go after Luca and Sarah’s father for child support, nor do they have health benefits or prescription drug coverage.
“How poor is too poor? What level of poverty qualifies you for the extra help, like medical?” questions Sia.
Each month the family racks up an average prescription bill of more than $300.
Additionally, CaLigiuri pays for Luca’s physiotherapy out of her own pocket. He is supposed to go three times per week, but their physiotherapist, Graham Pollard, was sympathetic to their financial situation and has made a deal with CaLigiuri that she can do the exercises with him most of the time, and only needs to have Luca see him once every week or two.
“Instead of paying Graham he wants me to take that money and invest it in Luca.”
Luca’s trips to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver are also paid for by CaLiguiri, which cost on average $3000 for the family to go each time. Often this means Luca can’t be seen as quickly as he could be, as CaLiguiri needs to save up.
There is no special financial assistance or care from the provincial government, Sia said, with the exception of a $190 tax credit for a child with disabilities.
Luca is constantly is in pain. He walks with his right foot out, and can trip easily. By the end of the day, Luca can barely walk, he limps more, and the pain is severe.
“They go with this term ‘high-functioning,’” Sia explained. “Because he doesn’t need a wheelchair, or assistant devices to walk. But because of this ‘high-functioning’ term, at school he didn’t get an aid.”
The family believes the social services system is overwhelmed in Smithers.
Indeed, social services has been identified as an area needing improvement in Northern B.C. in general.
The Omineca Beetle Action Coalition was formed in 2006 by the province of British Columbia to increase the resiliency of communities during the event of an economic downturn.
To increase resiliency, 13 branches, including Community Social Services and Supports, were identified as needing improvement in the Omineca region, which encompasses the areas of the Bulkley-Nechako and Fraser-Fort George regional districts.
“The community is only as strong as it’s weakest member,” Rimas Zitkauskas, OBAC Executive Committee member and Village of Telkwa councillor, said.
Many times, single parents will call up social services and are provided with no help, said Zitkauskas.
Instead they are told to either go online or drive to Prince George. Both of these tasks are nearly impossible for someone who does not have a computer or a car.
“People can’t be serviced with computers,” says Sarah Cunningham, OBAC program manager and consultant.
To identify the gaps in social services in the Omineca region, a pilot project in Burns Lake is being conducted.
It appears people are filling in gaps where support is failing in communities.
The purpose of the Burns Lake pilot project is to map the flow of how people are accessing social services, Cunningham said.
The project should be finished in late October, where the results and recommendations can be applied to other communities, like Smithers and Telkwa later this year.