A Bit of Respite for Wearied Parents

Early in the week at École Marguerite Bourgeois, where Le Petit Répit has its offices, all is calm as students and teachers end spring break with a PD day—allowing Anne-Lise Mercier to meet with me in the peace and quiet of an empty school. This family respite organization, which marked its 21st anniversary in November 2017, has stayed true to its founding ethos of accepting all respite requests and staying in direct contact with families to determine their needs. Anne-Lise is not just Le Petit Répit’s general manager. She is also its founder and the driving force behind its unique approach.

When overwhelmed by parental tasks and unable to prioritize, a fresh perspective or outside support can help recharge our batteries. At Le Petit Répit, it soon became clear that a proper needs assessment could match a family with the most suitable home respite worker or educator.

Most Petit Répit clients are two-parent families facing a range of challenges to the fragile balance needed for a healthy living environment (e.g., weakened social or family support network after a move, parents overwhelmed by workload pressure, homes where a parent works two jobs or one is absent for out-of-town employment, burnout from caring for special-needs children, multiple or successive pregnancies, etc.).

Le Petit Répit serves a large area that includes three regional county municipalities or RCMs (Orléans, Côte-de-Beaupré, and Jacques-Cartier) and three municipalities (Quebec City, Saint-Augustin, and Ancienne-Lorette). Besides addressing requests from families, the organization manages and oversees respite plans under the regional respite fund for special-needs children.

This unique and community-based model was designed to meet the needs of families in a compassionate manner, as shown in the care and attention provided by family assistance coordinator Suzie Doyon. Le Petit Répit provides 24/7 respite services with minimum three-hour home visits. With United Way and FDG support, it offers the most vulnerable families 18-hour packages that can be arranged or scheduled in whatever manner suits the parents. There are no waiting lists, and needs are addressed as they arise.

A young mother of newborn twins, for example, can catch a few hours’ sleep with support from an older, experienced educator who may help her manage her affairs and regain self-confidence. In families where the mother works and the father often cares for an out-of-town sick parent, meal preparation and childcare support can save the mother from exhaustion.

Created at the suggestion of ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Paul Savary, the 24/7 Augustine partnership gives mothers and fathers a chance to take respite in a caregivers’ room at Quebec City’s Monastère des Augustines, with free access to all activities and services—a program that is often a godsend for parents in need.

Le Petit Répit has a network of some 20 skilled, compassionate, and dedicated carer-educators trained in special education or social services (nearly all of them women) who can be promptly sent to the home of any family. Though paid, these women also volunteer their time to help the organization balance its budget while providing adequate services. For every paid hour of work, an equal number of volunteer hours is devoted to all aspects of its operation (e.g., un-invoiced time while on-call 24/7, availability of board members, volunteer work by full-time staff, etc.).

Like everywhere else, it is hard to recruit good people, and attracting and keeping them takes flexibility. Le Petit Répit staff can set their own schedules but may not cancel once they’ve agreed to provide a service for a family. While some of its workers are full-time and others part-time, all have flexible hours. They may take an occasional leave of absence for a placement or special training without being penalized. The fact that salaries must increase is a serious concern for the manager, as is the need to continue operations if she or Suzie are absent. Anne-Lise has begun delegating administrative tasks to an associate for two days a week (specifically in payroll and invoicing), and an educator has been trained to coordinate support plans if Suzie is away.

In the face of growing needs (402 families in 2017 vs. 430 anticipated families in 2018), Quebec’s Bill 10 has added a level of difficulty by disrupting network partnerships and creating a vast and confusing game of musical chairs. Despite talk of standardized practices, the uniqueness of each family makes it hard to provide adequate services. Clients are offloaded to community organizations because health and social service managers and workers lack time and resources.

While Le Petit Répit educators are highly professional, their findings are sometimes questioned and the framework on which it built a continuum of service with the public sector has grown fragile and developed gaps. Concerned for the organization’s long-term viability, Anne-Lise has begun touring points of service to meet with teams and explain the nature of Le Petit Répit’s work.

While she loves her job, Anne-Lise is quietly preparing for a change of management ahead of her retirement just over two years from now. The burden and demands of leadership have begun to weigh on her aging shoulders. In addition to local involvement, Anne-Lise is active at the provincial level on the Fédération québécoise des organismes communautaires Famille board of directors. Through the AGORA project, the Fédération developed a reference kit for autonomous community action for and with families. This tool sets out practices and activities for Quebec’s family-centred community organizations and provides a record to ensure their unique mission will continue in decades to come. All these activities have allowed Anne-Lise to build on her experience and put it to practical use. Upon retirement she will leave behind a healthy, solid organization with a bright future that can meet the acute needs of area families. At this stage of her life, she has no doubt earned a bit of respite.