Reneé Morven is there to help when families in need don’t have anyone else to turn to.
Knowing what it is like to have family diagnosed with schizophrenia as well have a daughter with a rare genetic disorder, she now works with families in Prince Rupert and the Northwest as a regional education educator and family support worker for those living with mental health and disabilities.
Born in New Aiyansh (Gitlaxt’aamiks) and brought up in Terrace, she was raised by her parents in the middle of two brothers. Even from a young age, Reneé knew she wanted to spend her life giving back to others.
“I always just wanted to be in health. I always wanted to help people,” she said.
The first chance Reneé had, she decided to pursue nursing. Having finished high school, she went to a local college to jump-start qualification possibilities for the best program. She was accepted into the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
The huge move to the Lower Mainland, culture shock and being away from family were all too much for her younger self to overcome. Ultimately she decided not to complete the program.
Upon returning home, Reneé was still motivated to work in healthcare. She found a job working for Nisga’a Valley Health as an adult care worker.
Moving back to her hometown with her family now including two young sons, she began to work with elders throughout the community.
“I loved living there,” Reneé said. “I loved it because we learned more about our culture. My family participated in cultural dancing. We got to learn and sing songs in our language. The kids got to learn Nisga’a in our schools. We got to participate in feats that were happening and we were literally a hop, skip and a jump away from the community centre … It gave us that sense of belonging of where we were from.”
While Reneé was living in New Aiyansh, her younger brother, Kevin, at 18-years-old began to act differently.
“I didn’t know what was going on with my brother,” Reneé recounted.
Growing up, Kevin loved to joke around and was known as a funny guy. He was active and played lots of sports.
Unknown to Reneé and her family, the behavioural change was the onset of schizophrenia. It is typical for the symptoms of schizophrenia to start between the ages of 18 and 21, Reneé explained.
“The symptoms that he was having, like hallucinations or being ‘out of it,’ we thought he was on drugs or something,” she said.
Her brother began to think he was somebody else. He stopped taking care of his personal hygiene, feeding himself properly and started doing odd things like pacing around the house. He even attempted to smoke a loonie like a cigarette.
“We really didn’t know what to do or how to respond,” Reneé said.
It wasn’t until Kevin’s school contacted her family, suggesting he should see a doctor that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
After the diagnosis, the family attended National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) family training to learn how to help her brother during this period.
It was a stressful situation for the whole family and they did their best to care for her brother afterward.
Back in New Aiyansh, Reneé welcomed a baby girl, Hailey, into her family. In the beginning, Reneé’s work required her to be out of the home most of the time, but she loved what she did.
Having not grown up around her own grandparents, being able to spend time around elders was comforting and gave her a sense of happiness, she said.
“It was reciprocal. I felt good for helping them and they felt good when I went to help them. I loved it. I loved working with them,” Reneé said.
As Hailey grew older she didn’t develop at the same rate her brothers did. She was always a few months behind.
“We just thought that it was just her being the baby and everything was doing too much for her,” she said.
When she was two years old the realization was not right dawned. Hailey became “floppy” and couldn’t feed herself small foods like she used. She started to have difficulty breathing.
“It was horrible. It was really scary. We didn’t know what was going on,” Reneé said.
Doctors diagnosed her three-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrom.
The syndrome is a rare genetic spectrum neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls. It affects about one in 10,000.
“We were told that there wasn’t anything they could do for Hailey. We would just have to manage her symptoms,” Reneé said.
Hailey developed seizures and needed assistance to walk. At eight years old, she relied on a wheelchair. Reneé and her husband then separated. Life became a difficult balance.
She had to leave the job she loved in order to find a new home that allowed her to care for her daughter, who was now completely dependent on her.
Reneé often felt alone in these times of difficulty. Other parents couldn’t understand the struggles she faced. She had no one to share in her journey.
She reached out to the Family Support Institute of BC (FSIBC). There she was given the advice she lacked for the issues few others face. The organization connected her to families in similar situations. They would share their stories with each other.
Then her life shifted again in 2018 when her brother, Kevin passed away.
The loss of her brother made her reflect and reset her purpose.
“He did things for himself. He didn’t care what anybody else thought of him. He didn’t think of his mental illness as a disability,” she said.
Losing her brother made Reneé realize she should be doing things to make herself happy. So, Reneé quit her job.
As fate would have it, the regional coordinator at FSIBC was looking for staff. Reneé transitioned workplaces. She was welcomed into the position, where she remains today.
“I would have never imagined myself in the position that I’m in,” she said. “Everything is linked to where I am today. I’m a firm believer of you go where you’re meant to be.”
The job gave her the flexibility that she needed to care for her daughter but also gave her the ability to help other families. With her new role, Reneé and her family moved to Prince Rupert to better serve the community here.
Today, several years later, Reneé now also works as the regional educator with the BC Schizophrenia Society.
In Prince Rupert, she’s fostered new community connections for the families who need them most and founded a support group that will begin in April.
She now aims for more far-reaching projects through the Partnership Education Presentation Program — a panel presentation that uses the storytelling model to address the stigma of schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses.
Until then, Reneé will continue to find and help families in need to help guide them to a hopeful future.
Norman Galimski | Journalist
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