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Lindsey’s Lasting Legacy Part 1: Centre of excellence rises in Red Deer for healing

Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre at the Sheldon Kennedy Centre of Excellence officially opens with a mission that victimized children never have to be alone

INNISFAIL – It was an appropriately cold blustery day on March 23 when Red Deer’s Mark Jones drove into Innisfail for the second annual Polar Plunge.

It was a fundraiser at the town’s popular Dark Woods Brewing & Coffee Roasting for the Red Deer-based Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre (CACAC).

The CACAC is a seven-year-old not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering children and families impacted by unimaginable abuse to courageously move towards healthy and fulfilling lives.

Jones, chief executive officer for CACAC, leads a dedicated team that is already working alongside a network of integrated partners in the new $29-million, three-storey Sheldon Kennedy Centre of Excellence on the south side of the sprawling campus at Red Deer Polytechnic.

The new facility, which is having its grand opening on May 16 with the CACAC occupying the entire third floor, is being hailed as the first of its kind in North America.

“Innisfail has really stepped up and they're heavily involved in what we do,” said Jones, whose organization has also benefited financially the past three holiday seasons from the town’s annual RCMP Charity Check Stop.

Innisfail’s 2024 Polar Plunge raised more than $8,500 for the new centre.

“Things just have worked out really well to engage this community because we're doing a lot of work in Innisfail and the surrounding community,” said Jones. “So, for people to be able to be a part of what we're doing is exciting not only for us, but for their community.”

The CACAC was launched from humble beginnings on the second floor of the aging Bunn Building in downtown Red Deer on Dec. 1, 2017.

But now its dedicated team will not only have much more space, it will work alongside partner agencies in a state-of the art centre that has a total of 69,000 square feet of healing space.

The massive centre is also the home of the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre, Alberta Health Services, Lindsey More Youth Mental Health and Addiction Hub, and the Step Up Step Down live-in addiction and mental health program for youth aged 12 to 17.

And there ‘s also Move Your Mood, a research-based program that promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyle practices to improve the mental and physical well-being of participants.

The spectacular new facility has long been a dream for Jones, board chair Terry Loewen and many others, and especially so for project contributors Rick and Cindy More, whose 22-year-old daughter Lindsey tragically committed suicide on Sept. 20, 2015.

On this cold and somewhat miserable day, however, the mission for Jones and his team continues; raising awareness and funds for the almost complete facility so others never have to endure Lindsey’s suffering, or the tragic fate of countless others.

Jones was joined by CACAC staff members and volunteers, as well as two RCMP officers - Cpl. Emma Leslie and Const. Heather Parenteau - who are tasked with the centre’s critically important child forensic interviews, a process that numbered about 400 in 2023.

When interviews are completed the children are gently ushered to the CACAC advocacy team.

“We ask them (children) to do really hard work when they come in. The centre has been designed for them to make it as comfortable as we can,” said Leslie. “The team, the group of people and the hearts that are involved, are critical for what happens to these kids from start to finish.

“It’s really changed the way we investigate and interview,” she added. “It’s centred around the kids. It’s centred around the victims, a trauma-informed approach to better serve all children coming into the centre.”

Doors are opened

Ten days earlier on March 13 the Albertan, including publisher Murray Elliott, were offered a tour of the Sheldon Kennedy Centre of Excellence.

Kennedy, a former NHL hockey player, was the lead director at the formerly named Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, which is now called the Luna Child and Youth Advocacy Centre.

Mark Jones, along with Rick and Cindy More, were proudly there to show off almost eight years of hard work, sweat and at least a few tears.

“This is modelled in my head, seven years of my life right here,” said Jones, adding his connection to the project is Lindsey More, who was good friends with his daughter. “Lindsey spent lots of time at our house.

“When Lindsey took her life, we went, ‘we got to do something.’ It really started out as a mental health and addiction hub, which is what we wanted,” said Jones, adding the hub now in Lindsey's name is on the new centre's second floor. “And then AHS kept saying, ‘no, no, no.’ And then I tried to go back, go back, and then finally they agreed to have the Step Up Step Down program here.”

“But then we met with Sheldon Kennedy and he said, ‘pyramid, throw money in, goes to the bottom, takes lots to fill up here, turn it upside down, get a focal point and build something, and all those people will come,” said Jones.

For more than two hours Jones proudly gave a tour of the nearly completed facility, one designed to consolidate strategic partners under one roof.

Rick More noted a key component for overall future success will be the collaboration between all groups of professionals, including those at the polytechnic.

“And when you get the educational component, like what Sheldon Kennedy did in Calgary, you are not only helping the kids here but you’re also helping the people in that field," said More, who is a CACAC board member. “Stuart Cullum, the president of the polytechnic, has been on board since he got here with us.

"He's got his people totally buying into this and coming up with programs."

The building is a meticulously crafted maze of board rooms, counselling offices, therapy rooms, assessment rooms, recreation areas, kitchens, witness and observation rooms, and even a courtroom and spiritual medicine room.

Security is always paramount. Nothing is left to chance for the protection of young children, not even long open hallways.

“Kids don't like to have that long look where everything just seems so long down there and straight. So, we put the curves on the floor. The curves in the floor take away from that,” said Jones. “The curves make sure everything's not straight and linear, and these wide walls, lights everywhere and natural light.”

The main floor, with its Step Up Step Down program, includes a 16-bed centre for kids who can stay up to six months for mental health and addiction treatment.

There is also the Move Your Mood, a research-based program that promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyle practices to improve the mental and physical well-being of participants.

There’s even a sensory room, and an area where kids are taught the benefits of nutrition and exercise.

On the third floor is the CACAC.

There are four family rooms, doctor’s office, Crown prosecutor’s room and a courtroom with microphones and cameras, as well as interview and monitoring rooms.

It’s here where many life-saving decisions are made.

It’s also a process where healing begins its long arduous but ultimately triumphant journey.

“They can have a facility dog in here. Our facility dog is trained to recognize emotion and support the kids,” said Jones of the process. “They can have their worker here. Their parents don't come in here.”

And when a hard day of work is done each child is taken to a room to choose their very own quilt; a symbol of the love and commitment from the dedicated service they all receive.

“They represent those kids who are ours, and we will be supportive,” said Jones.

NEXT: Part 2: Action for rural Central Alberta’s innocent gathers steam

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