Partner Agency Profile: CUPS

July 8, 2020

Q & A with Carlene Donnelly, Executive Director of CUPS

Tell us about your journey with CUPS and the vital work that you do?

I have a big vision of supporting marginalized people in Calgary and across the country as they manage the adversity of their past, build resiliency for their future and end the cycle of poverty and trauma for themselves and their families.

CUPS sees thousands of clients every year. The majority come to us with immediate need like food, shelter or critical healthcare. While it’s important to provide short-term support for clients, this transactional approach does not address the root-causes of their challenges, or does it lead to lasting change. As a result, the cycle of poverty often continues.

I have been Executive Director of CUPS since 2003 and over the last several years, I realized this approach was not setting clients up for long-term success. It was also an inefficient use of CUPS’ limited resources and made it challenging to sell CUPS to stakeholders, to show its value in a competitive non-profit marketplace and to maintain internal morale. Something had to change.

Research was revealing that experiences we have when we are young, shape our brains for a lifetime and that healthy brain architecture sets the foundation for healthy life outcomes. We needed to change the narrative. The questions shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with you?” it should be, “what happened to you?”

With this knowledge we have gone through an extensive process of engaging stakeholders and taking CUPS in a new, unprecedented direction, breaking away from the traditional non-profit operational model toward an evidence-based, integrated care program that is built on brain science.

Not only will this approach provide maximum benefit for the client, but it also provides CUPS with the data we need to continuously refine and optimize the process. We can also quantify the impact to stakeholders.

CUPS has become the only non-profit in Canada applying brain science to creating lasting, positive change for our community and beyond. 


In 2019, CUPS was named one of Canada’s Top 10 Impact Charities by Charity Intelligence – tell us what makes CUPS stand out from other organizations?

We know that there is no one-size fits all solution when dealing with poverty and trauma. Each client has a different story and each one needs a different level of support. This makes it challenging to not only design a program that effectively meets the unique needs of the client, but also one that can be measured. 

One of the primary areas that makes CUPS stand out from other organizations is that we’ve not only recognized this challenge, but we are actively engaging with a solution that could potentially be used by organizations across the country. 

In close partnership with researchers at the University of Calgary, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, our team has developed an intake process and assessment tool that would ask the right questions, effectively identify the client’s needs and enable the intake team of specialists to create the right strategy. It’s called the Resiliency Tool.

The Resiliency Tool is an assessment tool developed based on the science of the brain. As clients engage with CUPS programs and services, their progress is charted into four domains: Economic, Health, Development and Social-Emotional Resilience. Based on the results, the client is assigned a resiliency score. This score is then used to create customized, integrated care plans, tailored to each client. To capture the impact of this approach, outputs measure the “what” of a program while outcomes measure the “why.” For example, when we say how many individuals were housed, this number is an output that does not give a holistic picture of the impact of our housing programs. However, when we say what percentage of individuals were able to maintain housing, we are using an outcome to understand the success of the housing program. Reporting outcomes demonstrate how programs and services have an impact in the lives of individuals and families. 

By creating this assessment tool, CUPS has been able to provide integrated programs and services that meet the complex needs of low-income individuals and families. We are able to measure and report our impact, and — most importantly — better able to break cycles of poverty and trauma and build lasting resilience.

We are excited about the potential of this tool to be used as a prototype for organizations across Canada so that they may too bring lasting, impactful change to their communities.



Tell us how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your services and the families that need your support.

We have entered our third month of this pandemic, and I’m grateful that Calgarians remain concerned about vulnerable and marginalized citizens. The CUPS Covid-19 Response Fund is collecting donations to help CUPS continue to provide essential services to our community. Many Calgarians have stepped up and made generous contributions to the Fund including The Calgary Foundation, The Calgary Flames Foundation for Life, Telus, LandSolution LP, Alaris Royalty Corp., and a number of families including the Shaikhs, Kings, Benzies, Gagnons and many more. On behalf of the entire CUPS team and our community of clients and patients, thank you to each and every person who has contributed. You can learn about the fund by clicking here.

CUPS remains a leader in our city’s response to COVID-19. We have not stopped addressing acute and urgent medical needs in our clinic. And we continue meeting the needs of clients and patients through remote service delivery while delivering medical care in Calgary’s shelters and isolation sites. Our education programs for children, parents and families have moved online. And we are still connecting people to the services they need from housing supports to help with a utility bill.

Our teams and their clients and patients, as well as our partner agencies, focusing on health and humanity in the face of great uncertainty and instability in our city is the very reason why we have not experienced more significant outbreaks in Calgary’s vulnerable population.



What would you like our #NotInMyCity Allies to know about the Moms and babies your work supports?

Resilience is an intergenerational project. And science tells us that positive caregiver-child interactions are fundamental to healthy brain development. That means the healthy development of an infant or child depends on the wellbeing of their caregivers. And our programming is built around that. So when a woman who comes for us for help, pregnant or with little ones we look at every way we can support them as a family.

The pandemic has been especially hard on the families we support, especially our Moms and babies. While we continue to support them in every possible way, because of the additional challenges of the pandemic, we’ve also reached out to the community for donations of critical supplies that are needed now. And we appreciate your support in helping us promote this campaign.  



What does Freedom mean to you?

To me, freedom, resilience and safety go hand-in-hand. Resilience is an individual’s ability to adapt to difficult situations and traumatic events — the things that pop-up out of nowhere and get in the way of our goals and dreams, and essentially our overall health. This isn’t just limited to a time of crisis or trauma. On a daily basis, people rely on their resilience when dealing with stress, health, financial or identity challenges. In a safe, supportive environment, we can overcome these obstacles, build resilience and find freedom to live our lives with empowerment and purpose. Without safety, there is no freedom.