High heels and high expectations are the trademarks Myriam Uribe brought to her first job as a residential worker with the Association in 1978.
Myriam and her family were among the first Spanish residents in Grande Prairie. Myriam was studying English as a second language at the college when her instructor suggested she apply to work for the Association.
On her first visit to the 109th Ave group home, Myriam was feeling very intimidated because she didn’t speak English. It was also her first interaction with the mentally handicapped. There were so many people living in the house and that made her feel uncomfortable as well. Myriam says she filled out the application form in such a “weird” way because she was so unfamiliar with the language. She laughs when she looks at it now, having come such a long way from those difficult first days.
Myriam remembers James Ulmer sitting at a table that day, smoking a cigarette and watching her intently. He said, “Hello Madame,” and Myriam assumed he was staff. Jim kept watching her. Myriam just thought that he was observing her reaction and evaluating her, possibly for hiring. In the living room, there was a commotion going on. She was trying not to show her reaction but she said it was very difficult to stay calm.
One month later, Myriam was getting ready to take her son to see Queen Elizabeth, who was visiting Grande Prairie for the opening for the QE II Hospital. She received a phone call to come to the group home, changed her plans and that day she started her first shift at 109th Ave with a load of laundry and a bunch of potatoes to peel. “I never peeled so many potatoes in my life.”
It was so important for me to make the decision, not to go and see the Queen like everybody had planned to go. I dropped that. I never went to see the Queen. My kid had to go to a babysitter that day, but I came to work. And from that day I have not left.
It wasn’t until Myriam took the job at 109th Ave that she realized that Jim Ulmer was not an employee, but a resident of the group home. Myriam worked with Jim for many years after that and every day he would greet her with “Hello Senora.”
Myriam’s close relationship with the clients she works with stems in part from the fact that, when she first started working with them, she considered herself their peer in some ways. Her language barrier was the handicap she had to overcome, so she could empathize somewhat with what they were dealing with in trying to communicate.
House parents at 109th Ave used to live in a little room with their dogs. Those house parents really liked Myriam because she was a good cook. Myriam comes from a large family but she never was responsible for cooking in her home when she was growing up. Her mother had always explained to her what she was doing while she cooked and those instructions are what Myriam relied on for cooking at the group home. Cooking was a huge job for so many clients and staff. Myriam brought spices from her own home and introduced her Spanish recipes right from the beginning. “Every day we have beautiful food.”
In October of her first year, Myriam’s supervisor took her to an interview for a full time position at the group home. She still did not speak English and didn’t know what to say when Chris Turnmire asked her questions. She’s not sure how he got through to her but remembers that it was so funny at the time. She didn’t get the job but says she never really expected to be working outside the home in her life in any case. She had her own family to care for, so she was not too concerned about it.
When the job was eventually offered to her, she decided to take it and found that it was not what she expected. At the beginning, she was taking care of clients and doing most of the cleaning as well. According to house rules at the time, the floors were to be washed with Pine Sol three or four times a week. “ It was horrible. That’s all you could smell.”
In those early years, the clients received about $65.00 per month for transportation, personal items, spending money and some also earned a small amount by working at Swan Industries or New Generations. The group home often got donations of food and clothing at the doorstop. Myriam used to shop at Salvation Army for the clients because they had so little money for clothes. She also used her sewing skills to mend clothes for the clients.
Myriam had an opportunity to visit Michener Centre in Red Deer. She was full of questions that she did not find answers to and she found that disappointing. She was trying to get some information that might help her work with the clients in her care that had been in that institution.
The most difficult challenge Myriam faces is client illness. One year, two clients passed away in the span of one week. As a Supervisor, Myriam had to continue managing programs, staff and clients and provide support despite the tragedy. In her experience, the best way to deal with the deaths is just to grieve together.
It’s important to retain stability in the group homes, especially with staff, because the goal is to create a family atmosphere for the clients. Myriam prefers the front line work with the clients and she refers to them as her real bosses. She considers the rest of the organization’s staff as “leaders.”
One of the most important things in this field is that the clients allow me to have the privilege to be in their lives. Each moment and each day is a blessing. I am grateful that I work with a wonderful staff to give our clients a sense of family atmosphere at their home.
There is no way to explain. When you work a front line it is so different. I want them to have what I have or better. I want them to have the options and opportunities to go and see things in life. I want them to have a beautiful yard and a beautiful home. Yes, there is lots of me put into this home.
The clients are first, not just in words but in practice.” In August this year, Myriam will celebrate twenty-eight years with the Association and is full of energy to start the twenty ninth. “It’s a life.