Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True meaning of Mother's Day

Villa Rosa helps 'wild child' become loving parent, nurse

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I've never liked Mother's Day, or Father's Day, for that matter.

Too corrupted by commercialism and the forced greeting-card insincerity that goes with it.

But before there was a Mother's Day as we now know it, before anyone reading this was born, there was a place in Winnipeg that was the true mother of all Mother's Days.

A place that has been like a parent to pregnant girls who have no safe place to turn.

On Thursday evening -- 115 years and 14,000 babies after Villa Rosa was founded by the Misericordia Sisters -- one of those women -- the 28-year-old mother of a nine-year-old boy -- stood before a modest fundraising dinner in the basement at the Holiday Inn Airport and shared her gratitude in a depth that those who had been to all six of the organization's Celebration of Motherhood Dinners had never heard.

"My story begins when I was 14," Cassandra Gagne said. "My parents informed me that they were getting a divorce and I felt my life was over. I became the wild child."

Predictably, she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain.

But by 16, her mother had had enough. She asked Cassandra to leave.

"At the same time, I was also kicked out of school and working a full-time job as a waitress," she told the gathering.

Cassandra thought she was in control of her life, but she was out of control, of course.

'I constantly think back to that girl who first walked through

the gates of Villa Rosa in August of 2003. She was scared, alone, immature,

uneducated, battling addictions, depressed, angry and had no clue

on how to parent a child as she could not even care for herself.

She is the exact opposite of the woman

who stands before you today'

-- Cassandra Gagne, with her son, Miguel

"At the age of 18, I found myself on workers' compensation, drinking every day and eventually pregnant and alone."

Estranged from both parents and little more than a child herself, Cassandra did what came naturally for someone in crisis who suddenly realizes life isn't just all about her and that she's about to become a mother.

She turned to her own mother for help.

But Barb Yake wouldn't take her daughter back. Instead, Barb recalled years before that her sister had gone to a place that looked after her when she was pregnant and alone.

Maybe it's still there, Barb told Cassandra.

Cassandra called Villa Rosa the same day and that was the beginning of the provincial government- and United Way-funded organization becoming her "saviour."

"As soon as I walked through the gates I felt that this was the place for me to start my new life. Everyone was so welcoming and warm and I never once felt like I was being judged."

Cassandra finished high school at Villa Rosa, took parenting and prenatal classes, and most importantly in retrospect, a course in anger management.

But Villa Rosa provided even more support.

After her son, Miguel, was born in March 2004, Cassandra was offered one of the eight nearby apartments for new mothers and the first of a series of scholarships from the Villa Rosa Endowment Fund that Thursday's dinner supports.

It was while Cassandra was giving birth to Miguel that she had a vision of sorts.

"During my labour I was able to see what nurses do and how their supportive care in labour can make such a difference to a patient."

Cassandra decided that's what she wanted to do; become a maternity-ward nurse.

By the time Miguel was 18 months, Cassandra had become a hospital ward clerk like her mother and was entering university determined to help other young women going through what she had.

It was around that time that she noticed something about Miguel.

He was beginning to show signs of being a special-needs child with a neurological disorder. Cassandra had planned to work while going to university, but Miguel's medical needs and the costs that went with them were too much.

"When I was at the point of thinking maybe I should put my education on the back burner, I received another envelope in the mail from Villa Rosa. It was another scholarship for $1,000."

It total, she received $9,000 in post-secondary scholarships.

Cassandra graduated as a registered nurse from the University of Manitoba last spring.

"I constantly think back to that girl who first walked through the gates of Villa Rosa in August of 2003," Cassandra told the audience at the Celebration of Motherhood Dinner. "She was scared, alone, immature, uneducated, battling addictions, depressed, angry and had no clue on how to parent a child as she could not even care for herself. She is the exact opposite of the woman who stands before you today."

Cassandra went on to thank everyone in the room whose generosity and support for Villa Rosa had helped her finish high school and graduate from university.

"Without you I would not have been able to reach my full potential. Because of you I am living my dream every day."

But Cassandra had someone else who helped.

Her mother, whom she now realizes did the right thing by directing her to Villa Rosa, and who was her role model through all of it.

You see, Barb Yake experienced another detour in life, besides the departure of Cassandra's dad.

When she was in her mid-20s, she was in a car accident that left her paralyzed for a year.

Doctors told her she would never walk, but she was determined to prove them wrong -- and she did.

We all need help from others, I told Cassandra when we spoke Friday, but in the end it means nothing if we don't help ourselves.

That's what Cassandra's mother did and that's what she taught her daughter.

There is no greater gift a mother can give.

Happy true-meaning-of-Mother's Day, everyone.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 B1

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