Alumni Profile: Cecilly Hildebrand, Executive Director of Candace House
Cecilly Hildebrand graduated from CMU in 2012 with a BA in Psychology. Today, at just 31, she is completing an MA in Social Work and serves full-time as Executive Director of Candace House, a daytime refuge in Winnipeg for families navigating the court system after the criminal death of a loved one.
"Research continually shows that when a loved one is murdered, it's different than any other kind of loss, because it implicates your worldview. You're confronting the brokenness of humanity, your own loss of trust in others—everything is shattered," Hildebrand says.
She explains that often the court process can be a harrowing experience that exacerbates family traumas, prodding the open wound of loss. Candace House, Hildebrand says, is about "trying to make a horrific process a little less traumatizing," for these families who have already been through so much.
"Our staff involvement is intensive. We really strive to provide a wraparound model of care for our guests, and that can look different every day. We spend a lot of time in court providing emotional support, practical support, and here at the house just kind of hanging out. We spend time playing with kids—sometimes I bring my dog with me, and that's always a big hit. It's a very humbling experience to be brought into peoples' families the way we are through our work here; it's something I don't take lightly."
The emotional resilience, the depth and breadth of skill required to do this work, supporting families in profound crisis, is difficult to overstate. But Hildebrand says her time at CMU was instrumental in forming her for the position she now holds and loves.
"I owe a lot to CMU. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the time that I got to spend there, the people I got to meet, and the education that I had. I never felt like I was being spoon-fed the answers to what I should think. It was really engaging in a way I strongly identified with, and it made me into the person that I am. There's an attitude CMU really cultivates of embracing the complexity of life. Professors empower their students to live with tension—this reality that nothing is black-and-white, and that actually, everything is a million shades of grey, and that's okay! I really appreciated that. I think people can sometimes forget that, especially in my line of work, living with tension like that is not a 'soft' skill, it's a hard skill."
"I spent my summer working directly with family survivors of homicide. I spent time in court with families, going to trials with them. We also organized a conference for thirty different family members to talk about forgiveness after homicide."In fact, Hildebrand's journey to Candace House began at CMU, through her CMU practicum placement with MCC's Victims' Voices program in 2010.
The program was led by Winnipeg's Wilma Derksen, who lost her daughter, Candace, back in 1984. (Candace's abduction and murder became one of the highest-profile cold cases in Manitoba; despite two trials and an overturned conviction, it remains officially unsolved today.)
After Hildebrand's practicum placement concluded, the two women stayed in touch.
Following graduation, Hildebrand certified as a Mental Health First Aid instructor, returning several times to teach staff and student groups on campus how they can help peers experiencing mental health problems to identify and access the help they need. During this period she also worked as casual staff for the Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) at Marymound, a Winnipeg non-profit supporting high-risk youth. For five years Hildebrand worked with young women aged 12 to 18, providing suicide intervention and crisis support. Through all of this, she gained critical experience honing and developing the trauma-informed care skills she first learned through her degree.
"Then one day, Wilma sent me a Facebook message. It was just one line: If you're bored, I might have an idea. What's really wild is I had been accepted to a Clinical Psychology PhD program in the United States sometime prior; I deferred, because it was too expensive, and finally turned the offer down just a week or two before that message. I was so disappointed."
The rest is history. Candace House opened its doors in November 2018; since then, Hildebrand and her team have hosted over 200 family survivors in connection with some 27 criminal deaths—many guests coming from well outside the city.
Feedback from families has been overwhelmingly positive. The living room coffee table even features a memory album, filled with photographs left by people who have stayed here—of their lost loved ones, or of their families all together, sometimes for the first time in years—and hand-written thank-you notes for the care and support received at Candace House.
"Designing the space was a really interesting process," Hildebrand says, "because we do work with such a diverse group of people, and you want the house to feel welcoming for everyone that comes through. So the layout needs to work and the décor needs to work for all the different families coming through, many with very specific needs, in order for it to be what we call a trauma-informed space."
This place is the first project of its kind anywhere in Canada. After such a successful first year, plans are already taking shape behind the scenes in hopes that the Candace House model can be implemented with equal effectiveness elsewhere in Canada—possibly nation-wide.
Locally, Hildebrand says Winnipeg's recent spike in violent crime makes Candace House more necessary to Manitobans than it has ever been, as a growing number of families must confront the aftermath of losing a loved one to violence.