May 15, 2024

How a gift to fund community-based research at O'Brien Institute for Public Health is transforming lives

Calgarian Lexi Marr has a home of her own thanks to research that helped unlock funding for program that helps unhoused youth
Lexi Marr sits on her bed in her new apartment.
Calgarian Lexi Marr is thrilled with her new apartment in downtown Calgary. Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Making a gift to the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) 10 years ago made perfect sense for Gail and David O’Brien. 

Gail, LLD'10, a community leader, was passionate about medicine while David, LLD'10, who built his business career in Calgary, had always been interested in education.  

“This melded the two together,” says David. “I thought it was just right that I give back in Calgary, because I'd been very successful in Calgary and owed it to the community.” 

In 2014, the O’Briens made a foundational gift to the CSM, which established the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. 

They have since made several gifts and continue to lend their leadership and expertise to the institute as members of the Strategic Advisory Board. 

“We felt that if we invested in public health, that could provide evidence-based solutions and go a long way in mitigating the costs deeply affecting our health-care system and its sustainability,” says Gail. 

As the institute celebrates its 10th anniversary, the O’Briens’ vision has become a reality. The institute is a leader in community-based research and is making an impact in health equity and public policy. Some recent initiatives include supporting Alberta’s most vulnerable citizens who were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; working with rural Albertans to address the ongoing health-care shortages in their communities and partnering with a community organization to unlock long-term funding for a program to combat youth homelessness, through the institute’s Health Equity HUB. 

Established in 2023, the HUB brings together UCalgary researchers with government and community members to effect change in policy and practice through health equity data. Also last year — backed by O’Brien member’s evaluative data and research — the HUB was able to help secure $3 million in government funding that went to Calgary’s Trellis Society for an unhoused youth program. 

It has changed lives for people like 22-year-old Lexi Marr. Last fall, through the Trellis Society’s program, she moved into her own apartment in downtown Calgary. 

“I was unhoused almost every few months for the past three years. It's very difficult,” says Marr. 

“Being able to find work without having to worry about where I'm going at night or where I'm staying is a huge stress off my shoulders.” 

David and Gail O'Brien

David and Gail O'Brien

Leading the way in community-based research 

The O’Brien Institute is one of seven research institutes at the CSM that bring together research members from across the university and outside of it. Focused on improving health outcomes, some of its research examines how social determinants of health such as income, education, race and gender equity can play a role. 

The establishment of the Health Equity HUB and how it helped unlock funding for a program for unhoused youth is just one example of how the institute is changing lives, says Dr. Kirsten Fiest, BSc'08, PhD'14, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute. 

“Kids were being reunited back with their families and were receiving appropriate treatment for their addictions and mental health issues,” says Fiest.  

“It’s just a really important example of the type of work that we’re trying to do within the community and the impact it can have.”  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the O’Brien Institute rapidly launched new research that benefited refugees and newcomers. 

The Cargill meat-processing plant near High River, Alta., experienced one of North America’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with more than 1,500 people — largely immigrants and racialized people — contracting the virus. Members at the O’Brien Institute’s research platform Refugee Health YYC studied the impact of the outbreak and organized a vaccination clinic at the plant to prevent future outbreaks, immunizing 1,638 Cargill workers. 

Celebrating 10 Years and Beyond

The group went on to organize additional vaccination clinics which provided more than 12,000 vaccinations at 13 urban and rural clinics in and around Calgary. This vaccination campaign—developed in partnership with several community groups and health officials—resulted in more than 94 per cent of Calgary’s northeast population receiving a first vaccine dose. The vaccination rate in northeast Calgary was one of the highest in North America for lower-income neighbourhoods.  

“I think the most important finding from that work was that people from equity-deserving groups - refugees, immigrants to Canada - they’re the ones who are most impacted when these things happen.” says Fiest. “The pandemic didn’t affect everyone equally.” 

Refugee Health YYC, on behalf of UCalgary, also pledged to align with activities of the World Health Organization’s Refugee and Migrant Health Programme – the first Canadian university to make such a commitment. 

The O’Brien Institute also led the way in community-based research with a 2023 initiative which helped rural Albertans learn about major health policy changes ahead of the provincial election.  

Along with publishing a series of policy briefs, the institute’s Centre for Health Policy urban and rural town halls in Calgary and Pincher Creek, Alta. The Pincher Creek town hall provided a platform for members of the community, along with local officials, health-care providers and members of the CSM, to discuss challenges in rural health care.   

The W21C Research and Innovation Centre has also been an integral part of the O'Brien Institute since 2010. Focused on improving patient safety and quality of care, W21C collaborates with health care providers, industry partners, and academic institutions to develop and test new technologies and practices that enhance health-care delivery. 

Lexi Marr reads a book.

Lexi Marr enjoys cozying up with a book in her new apartment.

Research-backed program gives unhoused youth a place to call home 

Calgarian Lexi Marr knows what no child or teen should ever know: what it feels like to have no home. Marr left home when she was 15 due to family conflict. She stayed with family and friends on and off, but also slept outside.  

“It was pouring rain, just terrible outside. That was not fun,” she recalls. 

Her own struggles with substance use prevented her from finding her own home. 

But thanks to the Trellis Society’s program that provides affordable housing with built-in social support for at-risk youth - backed by research through the O’Brien Institute’s Health Equity HUB - Marr moved into her own place last October. 

“When they brought me to my apartment for the first time, I sat there and I was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow.’ Because I was just kind of shook.” 

Besides having a safe and comfortable place to call her own, Marr has connected with other young people in the building with similar life experiences. The new sense of community and sense of security she’s found are both key to reaching her goals, including finding a job.  

She has nothing but gratitude for the O’Brien Institute who helped make this possible. 

“It feels really nice to actually have people that want to do research and do things to help the kids in the system, because sometimes it just feels like nobody wants to … I appreciate it a lot.” 

Looking ahead to the next decade and beyond 

The generosity from the O'Briens has helped inspire other donors — both large and small — to make gifts that are directly impacting the institute.  

“Philanthropy is absolutely crucial,” says Fiest. “David and Gail are philanthropists who have an impact on more than just health across the country. They’re so invested in making things better and that’s just really inspiring.”  

Gail O’Brien says she’s encouraged by the research happening at the institute and how it’s sparking healthier lives in the community.  

“It makes me excited and proud to think about the importance of the work that the O'Brien Institute will do over the next 10 years,” she says.  

“I am even more passionate about supporting it and making progress.”  

In 2024, the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary is celebrating 10 years of shaping healthier lives sparked by philanthropy, thanks to Geoff Cumming’s historic $100-million gift. The medical school’s seven research institutes are marking up to three decades of national and international excellence, powered by the generosity of their founding families and support of CSM donors both large and small. Groundbreaking discoveries by each institute have directly benefited children, youth and adults in Calgary, across the country and around the world. Together, our community has helped propel UCalgary to its ranking as a top research university in Canada while strongly positioning the university on the global map for health research.

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