Bissell Centre relies on robust data analysis to better understand clients, improve programs and services, and advocate for those in need
Growing up in the heart of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, Gary St. Amand saw the impacts of poverty on the lives of his family and friends. Witnessing their hardships motivated him to help others secure shelter, safety and resources to build a better life.
“Seeing how poverty can be so devastating for people and communities, I realized that this was something I wanted to invest my time and energy and passion into, and be able to say I was part of helping the world be a little better than it was when I found it,” St. Amand says.
Today, St. Amand is the Chief Executive Officer of Bissell Centre, an Edmonton, Alberta-based nonprofit that provides individuals and families support to overcome poverty and become better connected to their community.
“My role is to make sure that our organization is living out our vision to help people move from poverty to prosperity,” St. Amand says. “We’re working hard to make that true in whatever way we can, and data and analytics play a huge role in this endeavor.”
It’s critical that our data is reliable and the results of our analyses are trustworthy. People’s lives depend on it. With SAS, we can be confident that we are making well-informed decisions. Gary St. Amand CEO Bissell Centre
A community approach that puts people first
Since 1910, Bissell Centre has served those in need. The organization has grown and evolved over the years, going far beyond being a place that people can rely on for basic necessities. In addition to providing things like food assistance, clothing, personal hygiene products, baby formula and supplies, the organization also offers:
- Employment programs to help people find work and develop skills for long-term jobs and careers.
- Housing services to help get people into a safe place to call home.
- Eviction and foreclosure intervention services to help people maintain their existing housing.
- Mental health services via internal and external programs and resources, including visits with doctors and counselors.
- Financial empowerment services to help file taxes, apply for government benefits, open bank accounts, and learn how to improve financial well-being.
- A child care center for a safe, caring environment for young children to grow, learn and play through hands-on activities and social interaction.
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) programs and services that enhance the community’s awareness through education and provides support for individuals, families and caregivers.
- Community development programs that provide wellness, arts, culture, recreational and educational opportunities.
Admirable undertakings backed by data
With such a multifaceted approach, St. Amand is acutely aware that Bissell Centre needs to base its decisions and actions on sound data – not just emotion or good intentions. Robust data analysis is essential to evaluate the impacts of programs and services, to advocate for those in need and to secure more funding.
“The importance of data cannot be overstated,” St. Amand says. “We want to know that we are actually helping people, not just making assumptions about the actions we’re taking. We use data to illustrate for policymakers the impacts of their policies. We show how the programs and services we offer have a positive impact on the people using them and the Edmonton community as a whole. And we use data to tell a story in a way that motivates others to partner with Bissell Centre and invest in what’s going on here.”
With so much at stake, Bissell Centre teamed up with SAS for its data analysis. “It’s critical that our data is reliable and the results of our analyses are trustworthy. People’s lives depend on it,” St. Amand says. “With SAS, we can be confident that we are making well-informed decisions.”
This is where the Analysis and Evaluation team shines. “We are responsible for all things data,” says Jakob Koziel, Senior Research Analyst at Bissell Centre. “One of the ways I like to describe my job is that I’m responsible for amplifying the voices of our programs and community members. Oftentimes stakeholders and government officials prefer to speak data. So for them to be able to believe in the programs we’re working on, we need to have the data to back them up. Amplification is part of our job as data scientists.”
Bissell Centre collects data in a variety of ways. “One of the main avenues of data collection is our intake assessment, which we call the Self-Sufficiency Matrix,” Koziel explains. “We measure an individual’s self-sufficiency in six different domains: housing, employment, financial well-being, support network, mental health and physical health. Based on their scores, we refer them to the appropriate programs. During the intake process, we also collect qualitative data, like case notes, demographics and program-specific information. Then we follow up with them at three-, six- and nine-month intervals to measure the impact we’re having in their life.”
Koziel credits the partnership with SAS for much of their programs’ successes. “SAS has been instrumental in our program evaluations,” Koziel says. “Being able to show people data about where someone’s mental health was when they first came to Bissell Centre and then chart where they’re at after three or six months of intervention has been huge. We’ve seen people go from being in crisis to thriving after a few months of services and support. Seeing data like that has raised a lot of eyebrows in stakeholder meetings.”
According to St. Amand, Bissell Centre’s vision of ending poverty is underscored by a commitment to continually improve. “We are enhancing our effectiveness and efficiency through the insights we’ve gained from data analysis,” he says. “For example, we’ve discovered there is a strong correlation between the strength of a person’s support network and their housing retention. We can see in our data that if someone has that ‘social fabric’ – relationships, support and connections with others in the community – then they tend to be much more stable and likely to overcome poverty.”
Koziel says city councillors and funders at all levels of government rely on this data to make decisions.
“A lot of the data that we analyze goes straight to government officials, so it’s crucial that the data is reliable and trustworthy,” he explains. “Having accurate results is critical to be able to continue to receive funding.”
SAS has been instrumental in our program evaluations. Being able to show people data about where someone’s mental health was when they first came to Bissell Centre and then chart where they’re at after three or six months of intervention has been huge. We’ve seen people go from being in crisis to thriving after a few months of services and support. Jakob Koziel Senior Research Analyst Bissell Centre
A safe place where children can learn and grow
Hungry tummies that rumble. Clothing that no longer fits. A lack of soap, shampoo or toothpaste. Wondering if there will be a bed to sleep in tonight. If children are preoccupied with feelings of worry, hunger or discomfort, there’s little time to focus on just being a kid.
“Our mission is to do what’s best for the child,” says Jaye Brown, Director of Bissell Centre’s Early Childhood Development Centre. “It’s about having that compassion and knowing that it was not by choice for that child to be in this situation.”
In addition to meeting families’ basic needs, Bissell Centre believes everyone should have access to reliable, trustworthy child care, which can help to overcome poverty and build more stable lives. Bissell Centre’s childhood development program provides full-time child care as well as a drop-in/respite program that provides low-income families with free, temporary child care, enabling parents to attend appointments or job interviews alone.
“We do everything we can to make sure that every child who steps through our doors is welcomed and set up for success,” Brown says. “We strive to create a sense of home, of belonging, for children to thrive.”
And with a diverse population of 1.5 million people, Edmonton’s rich cultural makeup is something Bissell Centre strives to celebrate within its child care center. Edmonton was founded in Treaty 6 territory, which encompasses 17 First Nations in central Alberta, including the Cree, Dene Suliné, Nakota Sioux and Saulteaux.
“About 80% of the children in our program are indigenous, and we want them to stay connected to their cultures,” Brown says. “We have an aboriginal coordinator who helps us incorporate elements of the various indigenous tribes into our program – signs written in native languages, art, books, dolls and more that children can play with and learn about.”
Bissell Centre also has a team of people who specialize in childhood development. “Our staff members work with neurodivergent kids, kids who have experienced trauma, kids who had prenatal exposure to alcohol, and kids who might benefit from additional supports or specialists,” Brown says. “We are here to guide parents to resources, programs and people who can help their unique situation.”
Bissell Centre – Facts & Figures
meals served in the last year
people connected with housing resources in the last year
children participated in the Early Childhood Development Centre in the last year
A mother’s journey comes full circle
Jesika Lefebvre has experienced Bissell Centre both as an employee and as the parent of a child in the care center. Lefebvre devoted her early years working at Bissell Centre on the frontline, doing intake assessments and meeting with people from all walks of life.
“I’ve seen firsthand through the community members I worked with that being able to take their kids to the child care center meant they could go out and interview for a job – and work that job after securing it; they could get that apartment, go to that important medical appointment and practice self-care,” she says. “It’s truly life changing.”
Today, Lefebvre is the Manager of Administration at Bissell Centre. As her career has grown, so has her family. She and her husband welcomed 2-year-old Alex into their lives when they adopted him through foster care. After eight months of bonding during parental leave, Lefebvre returned to work at Bissell Centre and was able to bring her son with her.
“It’s fantastic going to work in the morning and knowing that he’s in a place where he’s loved just as much as he is when he’s at home,” Lefebvre says. “And he’s going to have more opportunities to learn new things, make more friends, explore other cultures, and discover different ways of doing things than I could teach him.”
When Alex began experiencing what Lefebvre describes as “big feelings” and needed additional supports, Bissell Centre staff stepped right in. “I work at Bissell – I know all the resources offered – but when it’s your kid who’s struggling, you are at a loss for what to do,” Lefebvre says. She met with a family support worker, who took the time to learn about Alex and made referrals to specialists for occupational therapy and play therapy.
Modifications were made in the classroom to better meet Alex’s needs and help him enhance his gross motor skills, emotional intelligence and independence. “Since we began using these support services, things have been amazing,” Lefebvre says. “Alex is happier, and he’s getting along with his friends better.”
As an employee, Lefebvre witnessed the transformations people made in their lives with the supports offered through Bissell Centre. But by using the services and watching her son flourish as a result, Lefebvre gained a deeper sense of connection to her community and admiration for what her organization does.
“Bissell Centre truly is a special place,” Lefebvre concludes. “No matter your background or your story, everyone is welcomed and treated with dignity and respect. I’m fortunate that my son will grow up knowing that we’re not all the same ... and that’s what makes life so beautiful.”
Curious to learn more?
Dive in to our conversation with Senior Research Analyst Jakob Koziel for a more in-depth discussion of how Bissell Centre harnesses the power of analytics to change lives for the better: How a senior research analyst is using analytics to combat poverty.