Regina DaSilva-Gibbons, the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Thompson, thinks she might have gravitated toward “people-intensive” work because at one point in her life she felt helpless.
She recalls a childhood punctuated by frequent trips to the psych ward to visit her struggling father, who battled schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He ultimately took his own life when DaSilva-Gibbons was only seven.
“I was too young at the time to fully understand,” says DaSilva-Gibbons, who grew up in Winnipeg’s Weston neighbourhood. “I came to realize and understand over the years that he wasn’t weak, he was sick.”
DaSilva-Gibbons, now 49, remembers with fondness and gratitude the teachers who helped her cope with her feelings of grief and confusion. “The suicide happened when I was in grade two. My grade one teacher saw me sitting on the steps one day and I have a vivid memory of telling her that my dad had killed himself. She stayed connected and checked up on me for years after that,” says DaSilva-Gibbons. “There were others, too. I always had someone to talk to.”
Today, DaSilva-Gibbons returns the favour in her job. At the Boys and Girls Club of Thompson she sees kids in distress all the time. She tries to be a source of comfort to kids whose pain seems all too familiar to her.
Her personal story gives her credibility in the eyes of the youth she serves. She doesn’t just sympathize, she can truly empathize.
“Mental health issues run rampant in my family, and it wasn’t just about suicide,” says DaSilva-Gibbons, who takes anti-depressants to manage her own condition. “I know what it is like to grow up without expectations. I know what it’s like to be abused. I know what it’s like to be poor. The older kids here know that I feel their pain at a deep and authentic level. They know that I’ve been there, done that, and have come to terms with the horrible parts of my youth.”
What drives DaSilva-Gibbons today is her desire to help the kids of her adopted community in Thompson to deal with the strife in their lives.
“A lot of these kids don’t have it so good at home,” she says. “The Boys and Girls Club aims to provide a stable, compassionate environment with nutritious food, programs, and life skills training. We give these kids first chances, second chances, and third chances. We try to give them hope.”
The Boys and Girls Club of Thompson serves about 500 different children a year through after-school, weekend, and summer programs. On busier days, DaSilva-Gibbons and her colleagues might see 100 different kids.
The population they serve is mostly aboriginal, says DaSilva-Gibbons. “The community is still living with the consequences of the Sixties Scoop and the residential school system,” she says. “Some of these kids don’t feel like they have a heritage to hold on to. The community was decimated. The kids don’t feel fully aboriginal, and they don’t know how to fit into the rest of Canada. It’s challenging for them.”
DaSilva-Gibbons moved to Thompson in 2014 when her husband accepted a position at a mining company after they had previously lived in Beausejour and Winnipeg. DaSilva-Gibbons eagerly accepted the position at the Boys and Girls Club after the move north. She had worked as a waitress in her younger years and then worked with an agency helping adults with developmental disabilities to find employment. Through it all, she earned a psychology degree from the University of Winnipeg and is working on attaining her human resources credentials through Red River College.
The job in Thompson is stressful, she says, but she works with a small staff she trusts and admires. “We see a lot of sadness and despair,” says DaSilva-Gibbons. “But there are many ‘miracle moments’ that make it all worthwhile.”
And so, Regina DaSilva-Gibbons has traded the helplessness of her own childhood to a position where she can help children today find hopefulness: “This is very important work and we have to do it well. It is necessary for the kids, and it is necessary for the community.”
To learn more about the Boys and Girls Club of Thompson, visit http://www.bgcthompson.ca/.