Jodi Ford was ready to pull her hair out the day she went online and googled “Help, Fort Saskatchewan.”
The single mother, new to the city, eventually came across a Facebook post describing the Families First Society of Fort Saskatchewan. 
Ford, who has a young child with special needs, said she was absolutely terrified the first time she showed up at the society’s doors. Five years later, she still turns to the local nonprofit for help with making her family the best it can be.
"Families First has been a lifeline for us for times when we couldn't really do it just with the skills that we had in our toolbox,” she said.
Families First has been providing early childhood development, parenting programs and family support services for 20 years in Fort Saskatchewan. The organization got off the ground in 1998 with enough grant money to hire one employee. It now has a staff of over 80 and annual revenue of more than $1 million.
Families First board chair Karen Sliwkanich was on the interview committee when the search for that first employee began. Back then, one worker “had to be everything.”
“She was the one that found the space for her office desk to be. She was the one that went out and bought the computer that she would have used. She was the one that managed all of the programs and tried to make connections with various other organizations that were also serving children, youth and families in this community."
Sliwkanich never imagined 20 years ago that Families First would get to where it is today.
"It feels like it's been a long time but then it feels like it's been just a snap in time," she said.
Years before finding their current home, Families First started out with just a desk in the city’s family and community support services office. An ever expanding menu of services saw the group moving from the Boys and Girls Club to city hall to “wherever we could find desk space,” Sliwkanich said, adding that they had programs running “everywhere.”
“And we kind of begged and borrowed wherever we could and then we were looking at all kinds of different buildings. And we kept going back to city council until finally the city council, they approved that we were able to take over the old RCMP station."
Families First celebrated its anniversary with a barbecue at Pioneer House on Monday night (Sept.24). Executive director Heather Boonstra found herself getting emotional listening to the stories of parents who have used the society’s services over the years.
Some of the children who took part in the group’s very first programs are now coming by Families First with their own kids.
“We've matured in how we see ourselves working in community with the families and individuals that come through our doors,” Boonstra said. “I think that's evolved over time and we're really comfortable there now in terms of being those story listeners and helping to value voice and choice. We're there. We're rooted in that now. And our community knows that they can count on us for those things."
Along with Boonstra and Sliwkanich, Families First parent support worker April Jennings has been involved with the group since the beginning, first as a volunteer and board member and then as an employee. One of the nicest parts of the job, Jennings said, is hearing from the parents who use the group’s programs.
“Sometimes we have no idea of the impact that we have on people's lives. But more than that I don't think they realize the impact that they have on our lives as well, as coming in and sharing their lives with us."
Families First is now helping over 950 families every year, providing educational and developmental programs for parents and their young children as well as support for those impacted by family violence, baby loss, or other difficult issues.
Local mom Ford said Families First gave her an escape when she couldn’t take being stuck inside her own four walls.
“If you're looking for help on how to cook, absolutely anything, if you just need a shoulder to cry on, they're there for you."

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