Addressing Frontline Healthcare Concerns - With A Laundromat

"What we really do is try to improve the health of individuals who face barriers, which include poverty, social isolation, substance abuse, mental-health and physical-health issues."
Nov 14, 2010 5:52 PM ET

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The Alexandra Community Health Centre - Covering All The Bases

The Alexandra Community Health Centre has been providing healthcare, counseling, food and community-building services to seniors, poor single parents and Calgary’s ‘at-risk’ population for 32 years. Their innovative approach to serving their clients is considered cutting edge thinking in some circles but it’s old hat at the Alex.

Shelley Heartwell is the Executive Director of the Alex.

Shelley Heartwell: I just picked up in The Globe And Mail, a whole new initiative on front-line primary health care. And what’s interesting is that The Alex has been doing that for years. And what we really do is try to improve the health of individuals who face barriers, which include poverty, social isolation, substance abuse, mental-health and physical-health issues.

In our clinic services we really look at an interdisciplinary approach to address health issues, ‘cause lots of times health is not just the presence of disease, but it’s also determinants of health and issues that affect health. So, we also have on staff crisis counselors, who can address poverty issues, housing issues, nurses who follow up with treatment issues. And we provide a comprehensive health system to address the needs of those living in circumstances that are difficult to manage, not just from treating the illness, but from addressing the issues that that person may come with.

Narrator: The Alex is not only inter-disciplinary in its practice: it is creative and strategic in its approach to problem solving. Sometimes the solutions that result are a little unexpected, like buying a neighbourhood laundromat.

Shelley Heartwell: The idea of setting up the laundromat came over a three-year study, looking at the needs of low-income women in Calgary. We realized that laundry services were causing women a great deal of financial strain because it’s quite expensive often to go to a laundromat nowadays, and in many homes, low-cost housing projects don’t have laundry services. Food is often an issue. If you send your kids to school, they may be hungry. But the other issue is - sometimes when they were sending their kids to school - their clothes weren’t very clean. So, they’re stigmatized two ways, both through food issues and being hungry and the way they looked. So, if we could look at, how do we help support mums living in poverty to be able to provide those supports for those kids in a low-cost way and be able to engage them in being involved in their community through the laundromat.

We wanted in this community to create a laundromat that was safe, created opportunities for social support and access to information and resources. We felt that it was a real good opportunity to set up a community-development project where we could look at addressing some of the barriers for these women. We have community-development staff on site so they can set the families up with resources out in the community. We have a CAP site, which is a computer access program where people can come in and go on the Internet and look up opportunities for employment or be able to communicate with their friends. It’s created a real sense of community at that laundromat. They’ve set up a knitting group, so people from the community come there twice a week and are knitting and talking and creating opportunities to decrease social isolation and start building a community. 


For more information on The Alex, including how to volunteer or donate visit:

To learn more about the Alex see The Alexandra Community Health Centre – Thinking Outside the Soap Box