Foundation offers much needed supports to rural youth

The Tanner Steffler Foundation was created to help youth access mental health and addiction services in traditionally underserved rural areas

In the aftermath of losing their 19-year-old son, Tanner, the Steffler family built a charitable foundation to honour his memory and provide much needed resources, support and hope for youth and families dealing with mental health issues and addiction.

The Tanner Steffler Foundation was created in 2017 to help provide access to better mental health and addiction resources for youth in rural Huron County, ON, which, like many rural areas, has been underserved.

“We don’t want anyone else to have to go through what Tanner went through and what we went through,” says John Steffler, Tanner’s father and foundation board chair. “We had to be our own advocate for Tanner throughout his journey, and at the time we only knew Tanner’s story. Now we have heard so many others and we know our system must do better in terms of what it is able to offer.”

Tanner’s parents established the Tanner Steffler Foundation as the first step in reducing the barriers to help youth in their community. The foundation is focused on an evidence-based approach to mental health and addiction treatment. It is made up of a partnership of professionals in the field, combined with peer engagement and family partnership to create a full circle of support. The goal is for early intervention options with support through an individual’s journey.

The My Journey platform is the foundation of the program. Through it, youth are matched with social workers who are specifically trained in mental health and wellness. The same social worker guides the young person through the process and acts as the liaison between the various services and options available. In this way, youth don’t have to keep telling their story over and over and can concentrate on recovery.

John says that existing provincial health funding has always been based on concentration of population, which creates challenges for rural areas. In addition, many addiction treatment facilities are priced out of reach for most people. His goal has been to create a non-profit treatment model that removes barriers to treatment so that people are able to get access on demand, with no delays because of where they live or the cost of treatment.

“We are not a crisis line,” he says. There are numbers available for people to call to get them immediate help in an emergency situation. “We help them with the next step. We hook them up with a navigator who will talk them through their journey. Within 12 hours of contact we want to make sure they are on the path to long-term help.”

The foundation has worked with about 300 youth aged 12 to 24 since its inception and is currently working with 63 individuals and their families. The global pandemic has added a new dimension to the foundation’s work as many people struggle dealing with COVID restrictions.

“The pandemic has taken a social and emotional toll on a lot of people,” says John. “We are dealing with a variety of different mental health issues that isolation has caused. Often when an individual needed services, the service was closed. We are there for people no matter what the circumstances.”

The pandemic has also exposed gaps in mental health supports and John believes the enhanced conversation around mental health will continue long after the pandemic is over.

“We are people-based and community-driven,” says Steffler. “But, the pandemic also set us back. Our next step is to build a treatment centre and that has been delayed because of COVID. The problem wasn’t so much about construction of the building, but we need funding to keep it up and running and fundraising capabilities have been highly impacted by COVID restrictions.”

The foundation is funded through community support, memorial donations, grants and support from industry groups. Bayer has supported the foundation with a $2,500 grant from its Canada’s Farmers Grow Communities program. The foundation was nominated for the program by local farmer, Mike Van Aaken, who has never met the Steffler family, but as is typical in rural communities, knew of the family, their loss, and their work to honour their son.

“I’ve followed their story from the beginning, I’ve read about all they have been through, and I have seen them push hard for change,” says Van Aaken. “It’s a small town and while I personally didn’t know them, knowing that there are people out there who are wanting to help and to bring people to our community who are properly trained to help out our youth, I wanted to do what I could,” he adds. “I saw on Twitter the Bayer post about nominating an eligible community member and they were the first people who came to mind.”

Van Aaken and his wife had welcomed their first child around the time of his nomination, and he said he wanted to know that when his son reached high school, the gaps that existed now would be gone by then, and that the community support would be available if he ever needed it.

“It is easy to tell that the Stefflers are selfless people,” he says. “They took a bad situation and turned it into the best solution possible for our community. They are working hard and if I had the opportunity to help in the future, I would be happy to be more involved like many in this community are.”

In addition to opening the treatment centre, the foundation is also working with the Ontario government on a Youth Wellness Hub. The hub will bring together health and wellness agencies and organizations throughout the province to work under the same platform with satellite locations, both urban and rural, so youth can address needs related to mental health, substance use, primary care, education, employment training, housing and other community and social services, no matter where they are in the province.

While they didn’t have the resources in his county, John says many other rural areas have developed models for treatment where the population is low, and he has been able to access support from other organizations.

“We had no interest in recreating the wheel,” he says. “You may think something is your idea but then you realize it is not at all, and then you learn from the best. In 2019 we went to Australia and learned from some of the top rural youth treatment programs in the world. We have received a lot of advice from the Foundry youth program in B.C. You learn from others and you also do things that work just for your region and your people.”

The foundation has continued to grow since it was established more than three years ago, and has launched programs with high schools and school boards to establish support groups throughout the county. John says he is always happy to listen to others and to share Tanner’s story because people need to know they are not alone.

“When I talk to groups of youth, I compare their lives to a book,” he says. “It has 75 chapters and they are on chapter 18 or 19. Nobody really remembers the first part of the book. They remember the ending, the sum of the whole book and they need to remember that. We are there to help them all at whatever chapter they are on. Their journey with us doesn’t last forever, but their file is never closed.”

Tanner Steffler Foundation: www.farmforum.ca/tannerstefflerfoundation

Canada’s Farmers Grow Communities program: www.farmforum.ca/farmersgrowcommunities

Foundry: www.farmforum.ca/foundry



Investing in rural communities, 66 grants at a time

by Clare Stanfield

For the last eight years, farmers have been giving back to their communities with the help of Canada’s Farmers Grow Communities program, sponsored by The Bayer Fund.

“This program, gives us the opportunity to support what’s important to farmers,” says Trish Jordan, senior business partner with Bayer CropScience Canada.

Through the Farmers Grow Communities program, farmers can nominate nonprofit or charitable organizations in their communities to receive a grant for $2,500 to help them continue their work.

The program, which began in 2012, awards 66 grants per year, two in each of 33 Bayer sales territories across Canada.

“We started this program for two reasons,” says Jordan. “Number one, we wanted to give back to the communities where our employees and customers live and work; and number two, we wanted to help improve the lives of people in these communities by offering support to the non-profit organizations that serve them.”

Farmers can nominate a charity by going to canadasfarmers.ca and filling out a very short and easy application form. Non-farming community members can go to the same site to suggest a local non-profit that could use some financial help. The nomination period for 2021 ends on September 30.

Over the years since Grow Communities began, Jordan says she’s noticed an expansion in the types of charities that are nominated. At first, the nominees were predominantly sports and infrastructure focused (uniforms, ball diamonds and community halls). The program has evolved to include nominees focused on “softer” issues such as mental health and wellness, food and nutrition, libraries and schools.

The Tanner Steffler Foundation is a case in point. “It reminds you that rural communities don’t always have access to the same services you see in larger centres,” says Jordan. “I’m really proud of how the diversity of applications has grown. It feels good to see the impact these grants can have.”