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In Focus Spotlight | Shannon Christensen, Mamas for Mamas

Shannon Christensen’s list of accomplishments is enough to leave nearly anyone in awe. A mother of two active young boys, she is a trauma therapist with the Elizabeth Fry Society, aiding women and families as they overcome poverty, sexual assault, and other struggles. If that wasn’t enough, Christensen also founded a quickly-growing registered non-profit in 2014, when she was a stay-at-home mom.

With 7,000 members in Kelowna and chapters that stretch from coast-to-coast across Canada, Mamas for Mamas has become a beacon of hope and support for mothers of all socioeconomic backgrounds, offering a shoulder to lean on in times of stress and crisis, and access to much-needed services for mothers who are struggling financially.

Christensen’s contributions to the community made her the obvious selection for the first In Focus Spotlight, presented by Doak Shirreff Lawyers LLP.

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>Shannon Christensen smiles for a photo following her first graduation.

Who or what makes you laugh the most?

My 2 little boys and giant boxer, Caesar, are absolutely hilarious! The kids are 2 and 5, and they always find a way to crack me up- whether it's my youngest son Jacob trying to wear my high heels into the sandbox or my older son, Jimmy will make up dances and perform them for me with his undies on his head and claim he's the band "underwear head guys". My god daughter Jayden plays with Caesar like they're both canine, it's hard to describe the hilarious image of a 13-year-old girl rolling on the ground with a 100lb dog wrapping her in his paws, but it's pretty amazing. I also find slapstick comedy really funny, unless someone actually gets hurt... then it's only kind of funny! I also love the character Michael Scott from The Office, he really cracks me up!

What is one place that you would like to visit? Why would you like to visit it?

I would love to visit Ireland with my family. It is where my dad's side of the family is originally from and would love to connect with my ancestral roots. I've been told I was named after The Shannon lake in Ireland, so I figure I better go see it for myself and enjoy some sightseeing and Guinness in the process!

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>Shannon credits much of her success to her family, including her supportive husband and inspiring children.

What is your guilty pleasure for entertainment (movie, tv, music, etc.)?

I'll admit it, I love Dr. Phil! My god-daughter Jayden and I watch it together and it's part of our special time, I also watch it when she's not there but then pretend I haven't seen it so we can binge watch when she's over (Sorry Jay!). I also love reading true crime and murder mystery novels, I'm a huge fan of Michael Connelly and Lisa Gardner.

Which talent would you perform if you auditioned for a talent show?

I would sing a song directed at my husband, "it looks like we made it". After 12 years of everything from falling in love at 18, dealing with immeasurable loss in our family and getting stronger every step of the way, I think it would be fitting. I used to take royal conservatory singing lessons as a young girl and was learning to sing Whitney Houston's I will always love you...I'd love to see if I still have the pipes for it!

Tell us about a favourite hobby or something you are passionate about.

I love to read, it's my favorite past time and writing poetry is a passion of mine that I've had since I could read and write. I love going on road trips, especially our annual family trip to the Cowichan valley to visit my sister at her amazing log home paradise that we call the Shire. Growing up, I spent every summer on the ocean for 2 weeks with my dad and 3 sisters, visiting different islands and sometimes just dropping an anchor wherever we were at dusk and having a BBQ on the back of the boat. Being near the ocean makes me feel connected and peaceful, I love hearing the crashing of the waves and watching the sunset over the seemingly endless horizon. I love spending time with my family and cherish the rare special moments my husband and I get to share with each other at the end of a long day, with work, kids, and life, keep my spirit high and our connection strong. It's cheesy to say I'm passionate about my marriage, but I think it's an honour to spend my life with my best friend, Dylan.

What might people be surprised to learn about you?

I have had the same amazing group of girlfriends since grade 10, we go on an annual trip together and we just returned from my best friend, Halina's wedding in April, it was so amazing! She and I became best friends after fighting over the same boy in grade 8 science class. It was our first lesson in not letting a boy get between friendship! She later introduced me to my husband :)

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>Shannon cherishes her grade school friendships and the group makes special annual trips, including wine tours.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to help people. I wanted to do what my Nana did in Lagos Nigeria when she rescued babies from the street and nursed them back to health. I didn't have a strong idea of what I wanted to do until I was about 14, and then I knew without a doubt I would be a therapist for troubled youth, it felt like a calling and one I was excited to follow.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

My proudest accomplishment... that's a hard one! I think my proudest accomplishment is a combination of overcoming difficulties and facing the storm, no matter how hard the headwinds blew at times! After losing my dad, I wasn't sure I'd have the strength to finish my education, but I did with a huge amount of support from my family, and now we get to live the life we always dreamed of with our kids. Starting Mamas for Mamas was a very exciting accomplishment for me, but when my son Jimmy said he wanted to start Kids for Kids, a toy trading program for "kids whose mommy or daddy couldn't get them toys" I felt like the proudest Mama out there! I suppose it's not so much what I've done personally, but the impact it's had on the people I love that feels like the biggest accomplishment.

<who>Photo Credit</who>A middle child among four sisters and her younger brother, Sam, family has always been an integral part of Shannon's success and drive.

Please share a struggle that you have had and how you overcame it.

I have been breaking the silence over the last year about my own struggle with depression since I was a child in an effort to #getloud about mental illness/wellness. It's time to break the stigma that often accompanies it, and if we're going to talk the talk, we better be willing to walk the walk!

I fought against my internal struggle for years and unfortunately there wasn't much available for kids mental health at that time, my mom never gave up on me though and did anything she could to help. I promised myself then, at 14-years-old, that one day I would become a therapist and I would help young girls fight through depression without feeling like they had to hide it, feel ashamed of it or deal with it alone.Today, part of my job brings me into middle schools to work with at-risk girls to teach them self-confidence, communication skills, warnings signs for abuse, resiliency and coping techniques.

It took me many years and an amazing support system to find my true self, to learn to love myself because of, not in spite of, my difficulties. These experiences brought me to do my initial education in psychology, while my drive to help others on a deeper level pushed me to do my masters so I could do clinical counselling work, and my passion for giving hope to those who may have felt hopeless at one point led me to start Mamas for Mamas. When times were tough and it didn't seem possible, I would hear my Nana's words in my head... "promise me, be good to Shannon!". So, I suppose listening to good advice and being good to myself helped me overcome this struggle.

What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you?

Before you speak, THINK. Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?- BABA (My dad said this to me whenever I asked him for advice on dealing with a conflict, ironic words from a lawyer!).

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>Mamas for Mamas is a registered non-profit that has grown rapidly under Christensen's care, providing much-needed support for local mothers.

Please share a hope and a prediction for the future of Kelowna.

Having been born and raised in Kelowna, I am very passionate about our city and how we treat our citizens. Currently, I love and am consistently impressed with the collaborative and supportive nature of our local government. It is my hope that Kelowna will continue to support our most vulnerable members of our community by supporting our poverty reducing initiatives and our goal of creating the first universal child care centre with a $15 rate and a living wage paid to our Early Childhood educators. This is indeed a lofty goal, but as our team says “Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon”.

What path lead you to your career/position within your organization?

Interesting question, my career started with the intention of becoming a forensic psychologist, doing my masters and Ph.D. as soon as I finished my undergrad degree in 2009. Law and psychology fascinated me, so it seemed like a perfect fit. My academic goals changed suddenly when my dad passed away unexpectedly, the day after my wedding in August 2009; I reconsidered what I wanted my life to be about. I realized then, that it didn't matter how many degrees are on the wall in your office if you don't have people with whom to share the joy of life.

I took some time to ponder things and found an amazing master's program in counselling psychology that would allow me to follow my dream of being a therapist for a vulnerable population while starting the family I had always wanted. My drive to support mothers specifically came from my maternal Nana and the work she did with a motherless-babies home in Lagos Nigeria during the 1970s. I grew up sitting with her, listening to stories and looking at pictures of the babies she took care of and the tears she cried over the ones she couldn't save. She told me, "Shannon, even though sometimes your heart may hurt, if your life leads you to touch the life of a child in a meaningful way, it'll all have been worth it".

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>Shannon started Mamas for Mamas two years ago, while at home with her two sons.

As I worked on my education, my husband Dylan and I had our 2 beautiful boys and I lived the amazing, challenging and rewarding life as a stay-at-home mom for 5 years. The Adler University trains clinicians with a focus on social responsibility and giving back to their community in meaningful ways. I wondered how this would translate in my life. I quickly found out when I started a Facebook group aimed at creating a safe community for local moms to donate, share support and connect with each other with no financial barrier, I called it Mamas for Mamas.

I started the group at first because I realized that as a 25-year-old stay at home mom, I didn't really belong to a like-minded community and I wondered how many others felt this isolation as a stay-at-home parent. I also wanted to create a place where mamas of all financial backgrounds could come together and help each other find the resources and support they needed; Our kids grow out of things and toys so quickly and many can't afford to buy that next size up in shoes or clothes for their little ones. So, I decided to try to change the culture of selling everything to buy the next sizes up, and asked the mamas in the group that everything would simply be donated or traded if necessary - this idea took off like wildfire and our numbers increased by thousands in just 2 years. We have so many mamas in Kelowna who are not struggling financially, who want to give back and were eager to find an opportunity to see the impact of their generosity first hand. We also have a huge percentage of mamas in Kelowna living at or under the poverty line and many have to choose between paying rent, utilities or putting food on the table.

When all of these mamas come together with a common goal of giving someone a hand up with a donation or support, it's incredible to see how wealth can be distributed in a socially responsible way, while reducing the impact on the landfills too! It is so amazing to see these women come together to donate whatever was needed to mamas they didn't know personally, but they knew were in need.

<who>Photo Credit: Contributed</who>The Mamas for Mamas group poses with pro wrestler Mick Foley at 'Stuff The Bus'.

The group quickly grew from 30 moms from my personal Facebook page to a group of 300, and by the end of that first year, we had over 3,000 members. Today we have 7,000 members in our Kelowna chapter and 22 satellite chapters across Canada. We are now a fully registered non-profit society that has a community-based office where we can offer direct support to the mamas from our community who need more support than the social media platform offers. At our office, we have a full-time volunteer intake worker who helps with emergency food hampers and personal referrals to supportive agencies in town they weren't aware of, to offer ongoing support in whatever capacity necessary.

Even though my training is in counselling psychology, I found that the skills translated easily into running an organization aimed at helping women overcome the struggles of poverty and marginalization. Two years and 3 months later, I find myself as the founder and executive director of a social movement and active nonprofit organization, Mamas for Mamas, and the trauma therapist at the Elizabeth Fry Society. I'm truly living my dream, volunteering at Mamas for Mamas to help women and children overcome numerous struggles, while working in a paid position to help support my family, and follow my clinical dreams of helping vulnerable people heal from psychological trauma.

Presented by Doak Shirreff Lawyers LLP, the In Focus Spotlight is a special monthly feature that showcases an individual in our community that is working to improve Kelowna. Each participant is selected for their contributions community and is profiled on KelownaNow.

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