(Above) Kaylee Humphrey (front) enjoys story time with Disney princesses Belle and Ariel at Willowbuds

Kaylee Humphrey will never forget the day she met her two favourite Disney princesses, Belle and Ariel. “It was definitely the highlight of my four-year-old’s life,” laughs her mom, Nakita Humphrey.

The occasion was a “princesses and noble knights” party put on by Willowbuds, a mom-and-tots program of The Willows, a Salvation Army church in Langley, B.C. Participants dressed up as princesses and knights, enjoyed story time with Belle and Ariel, and had the opportunity to have photos taken with them.

Special events such as these, which attract families of all backgrounds, are part of why Willowbuds has been so successful. The group has grown steadily since it launched—attendance now averages 45 moms and tots per session, while its Facebook group boasts 200 members.

Building Community
When Willowbuds began in early 2018, it was held at the home of Lieutenant Renee McFadden, corps officer.

“At that point, it was for young moms in the congregation because there was a bunch of us who had children close together,” explains Andrea Petkau, administrative co-ordinator at The Willows and co-ordinator of Willowbuds.

In the early going, the group was small—about half a dozen moms met on a monthly basis, including Petkau. When she began working at the church in June 2018, Petkau approached Lieutenant McFadden about some ideas she had for the group.

Photo of Lt Renee McFadden with childrenMusic time, led by Lt Renee McFadden, is a favourite activity of many children who attend Willowbuds
“I had a vision for how Willlowbuds could grow and bring members of the community together,” Petkau notes. “I know that there’s a need for moms to feel community, especially when you are on maternity leave; you can feel very isolated. Renee was happy to continue working alongside me, but she let me take the lead on the project.”

A key aspect of Petkau’s vision was making the group outreach-focused and accessible to moms who were not part of The Willows congregation. Over the summer, she found a hall to rent that would accommodate more people, and since September 2018, Willowbuds has met at the Fort Langley Lions Club.

Online Outreach
Following the change in location, the church started advertising Willowbuds extensively throughout the area.

“The Langley area is made up of a few different communities,” Petkau explains, “so a team of us at the corps split up and took on different areas, putting up posters in coffee shops, community centres, on community boards.”

Petkau also recognized the untapped potential of using social media to advertise the group. “Being a young mom myself, I was connected to several Facebook groups for moms in the area,” she notes. “I noticed many people in the groups posting things like, ‘I’m new to the area and I don’t know anyone. Can anyone suggest a program?’ or ‘Is there anything free that I can attend with my child? I’m home by myself and I need to get out.’ ”

Petkau would respond to messages like those by sharing information about Willowbuds. “I’d say, ‘We’re a church and we offer a free drop-in program. Here’s our schedule for the next three months if you want to check us out.’ ”

One of Petkau’s posts received a reply that inspired a new phase in Willowbuds’ outreach efforts. “Someone asked if we had a Facebook group for Willowbuds,” she recalls. “We didn’t, but I thought maybe we should!”

Petkau created a Willowbuds group and invited all the moms who were already part of the program, as well as anyone who helped with the program. The Facebook group gives Petkau a platform to share information about Willowbuds, along with other programs at the church, and it gives moms a place to talk and give feedback about the program.

“The Facebook group is really helpful,” says mom Sarah Michel, who attends Willowbuds and the corps. “Even if you can’t make it on a specific week, you still feel like you’re in the loop of what’s going on and that you can be involved.”

Humphrey also appreciates the online aspect of the group. “If we have a positive experience at Willowbuds, I always write something on the Facebook group, like, ‘Thanks for the great day,’ ” she says.

Willowbuds meets twice a month on alternating Wednesdays and Thursdays to allow moms with different schedules to attend. The typical two-hour program includes time for free play, crafts, music and snacks, as well as coffee and snacks for the moms. The group also puts on special events such as the princess party and goes on field trips such as to a local honeybee centre.

“Kaylee’s favourite part is definitely the crafts,” says Humphrey. “They’re always so creative—it’s not just a piece of paper and a crayon. They’re well thought out. My daughter also brings home treasures from preschool, but its the stuff she makes at Willowbuds that I keep.”

Photo of Sarah Michel, with son, Judah“At Willowbuds, they treat the moms and kids really well,” says Sarah Michel, with son, Judah
“My boys love the music time, which is led by our corps officer, Renee,” says Michel of her sons, Judah and Sammy. “There are singing games, different sounds, different instruments for each song—I’ve noticed a lot of the kids really enjoy that time.”

Humphrey’s younger daughter, Chloe, is one of them. “Renee is so engaging and fun,” Humphrey says. “She creates this space where the kids can be excited to sing and learn about Jesus.”

While Humphrey is not connected to any particular church, she appreciates this aspect of the program. “I don’t have a lot of people in my life who are faith-based,” she says. “I like being able to go to Willowbuds and connect with this group of women because they’re different.”

Above and Beyond
Overall, Humphrey is grateful for how warmly she has been welcomed by the organizers, volunteers and other moms at Willowbuds.

“Whether it’s your first time being a mom or your third time, Willowbuds is inclusive,” she says. “They make an effort to know your name and what’s happening in your life. They make you feel like you’re important, like you matter. You’re not just a mom in a mom group; you’re a part of a mom group.”

One of Humphrey’s most meaningful experiences at Willowbuds was a Mother’s Day event held last May. While volunteers provided childcare, the moms were ushered to the back patio of the hall where organizers had set up a special brunch, just for them.

“It was so moving because, as a mom, you rarely get to just sit and eat, and enjoy the company of your friends,” Humphrey says.

“Everything that Willowbuds does is like that,” she continues. “They go above and beyond.”

Michel agrees. “They treat the moms and kids really well,” she says, “so it’s a place you want to go because you know your kids are going to have a great time and there’s a real sense of community. It’s welcoming to everyone.”

One of Petkau’s goals as co-ordinator is to create a safe space for every person who attends. And while the program is faith-based and families are invited to attend Sunday meetings and other events at The Willows, their primary focus is on relationship building.

“People crave community and connection,” concludes Michel, “and Willowbuds provides an awesome space for that.”

As with most Salvation Army programs across Canada and Bermuda, Willowbuds is currently on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its members and leaders look forward to resuming activities once it is safe to do so.

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