Former Estevan resident Engel helps others turn new leaf

Fifteen years ago, Barkley Engel founded Turning Leaf Community Support Services – a program that provides crisis and treatment services to those experiencing intellectual challenges and mental illness.

Engel, the son of Walter and Martha Engel, is a former Estevan resident and the founder and CEO of Turning Leaf. Based out of Winnipeg, it assists about 400 people a year in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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But he has never forgotten the time he spent in Estevan or how it shaped his life.

Engel still refers to Estevan as home. His father was a Pentecostal minister, so the family moved frequently before settling down in Estevan.  He went to junior high school and high school in the Energy City, and he graduated from the Estevan Comprehensive School in 1990.

Even when he received the phone call for this article, it caused him to start reminiscing about his time in this community.

But when he was in Estevan, he never saw this career path developing for him. He admits he wasn’t the greatest student, but he was fortunate to be accepted to Minot State University to study music.

During his time at Minot State, he went through what he called a “mental health crisis,” which proved to be a pivotal point in his life.

“That changed the way I looked at the world, and certainly changed what I should be studying,” he said.

He switched degrees to sociology while at Minot State. He later studied human behaviour and marriage and family therapy in Winnipeg, and is still continuing with his studies.

“One thing leads to another, and you find yourself in a career helping people, which isn’t what you expected when you were driving down the highway to go to college that first day from Estevan to North Dakota,” he said.

And he’s grateful to Estevan for giving him a home, and for giving him wonderful friends, who were there for him during his mental health issues.

“I could reach out to those people, and I could see what unconditional acceptance looked like. They didn’t care that I was not making sense or doing erratic things. They just accepted me no matter what. They were compassionate and they tried to connect with me on an empathetic level.”

Those kinds of relationships helped him on his healing path. And it was the first time he thought it was the time to have positive relationships around him.

Fifteen years ago, he was working with people who have intellectual challenges like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and mental illness.

“We were seeing that there were a lot of people going in and out of jail and in and out of the hospital, and not getting the services that they need for a variety of reasons, and they were falling through gaps in our system.”

Barkley thought he could take a different approach with those who were falling through the gaps. 

The organization has approximately 400 clients and 370 staff members – a team of people that he says is fantastic at what they do.

Turning Leaf is also the first organization of its kind, based in Manitoba, to branch into Saskatchewan. In addition to Winnipeg, they have services in the Manitoba communities of Selkirk, Winkler and Portage La Prairie, and they have branched into Regina and Moose Jaw.

“We’ve gone where the need was, and in doing so, a lot of doors were opened for us, because we were willing and eager to work with people that other people didn’t want to work with.”

Their approach is focused on treatment, and they help people who have addictions issues and those who are in conflict with the law and have mental health challenges. But they come from an approach of shared values.

“The most important value that we’ve got is that of unconditional acceptance, and that means no matter what happening or what you’ve done, we’ll accept you,” he said.

Empathy is also a big part of the organization, as the staff members try to put themselves into the shoes of their clients to understand where they come from and why they act in this fashion.

Compassion is also vital.

“It really resonates with the people they work with, and that’s why we’ve retained such a high number of participants.”

Turning Leaf is not a faith-based organization, but when they talk to people who are going through a tough time, they ask where the participants draw their strength. Many will say family or friends, but often they cite their faith.

“We encourage every participant to connect with a sense of spirituality and be a part of a faith community if that’s something for them, because there is strength to be found there,” he said.

Like other organizations, Turning Leaf has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, but Engel said they are an essential service for their participants.

“When the smoke clears from this, and this passes, whenever that is, we’ve got a very strong base of employees that are wanting to go to the next step with us.”

He looks forward to what the future holds for Turning Leaf, and the opportunities for further expansion.  




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