“We continue to produce the research needed to improve the lives of people with FASD and their families, as well as to look at the supports and services for women to have healthy pregnancies. We’re advocating for a bill that has been introduced into the Senate regarding a national strategy for FASD, so we’re hoping that will help all of us move forward and have a plan for Canada.”
Audrey McFarlane of Cold Lake has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. As a young social worker, she saw the struggles caused by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and was driven to help families impacted by it. She has effectively moved the advocacy, awareness, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and research of FASD from her local community to national and international audiences. A community leader, her long-term volunteer work also supports women and persons with disabilities.
Audrey Anne McFarlane was born on October 5, 1963, in Cold Lake to Carle and Heather McFarlane. The family lived on a dairy farm just outside of town. Audrey grew up with three younger sisters: Tracey Lynn, Andrea and Bonnie. Lynn was born with Down syndrome; this would shape much of Audrey’s path in life.
Audrey developed a strong work ethic early in life. As the eldest, she was responsible for looking after her sisters, doing farmyard chores and cooking for others who helped on the farm. She was inspired by the strong women in her family. “Growing up in a farm community, not many women worked. But my mom was an elementary school teacher. So was her mom,” says Audrey.
After she graduated from Grand Centre High School in 1981, Audrey moved to Saskatoon and worked at odd jobs before determining that she would need some kind of post-secondary education. With lots of experience caring for children, she decided to enter the two-year Early Childhood Development program at Alberta Vocational College (AVC) in Lac La Biche in 1982. When she completed her studies at AVC, Audrey took the Rehabilitation Practitioner program at then Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, a decision that she says was strongly influenced by her relationship with her sister Lynn.
For the next five years, Audrey worked a series of jobs, all related to caring for disabled children. As much as she enjoyed her work, she felt she needed more education, so she began her Rehabilitation Services Diploma at Mount Royal College in Calgary in 1988. She followed that up with her Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation degree at the University of Calgary, graduating in 1991. True to form, Audrey continued to work as she attended school, serving as a behavioural outreach specialist at the University of Calgary, a respite care worker and a program assistant at the Association of Rehabilitation for the Brain Injured.
When Audrey worked at the family’s market garden in the summer of 1989, her sisters scheduled her for a “meeting” with Paul Odell. The matchmaking went well; Audrey and Paul have been together for 32 years and have two children, Bryce and Carley.
After she graduated, Audrey landed a job as client services coordinator with the Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) office serving Bonnyville and Cold Lake. The Alberta government’s PDD program helps adults with developmental disabilities to live as independently as possible in their community.
“I enjoyed working with people, the families and the clients. While I was working there, the government supported my learning about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). I was able to pursue a lot of programs and educate people about FASD throughout the community. We hosted a number of conferences, and PDD supported some of those.” But she wanted to do more.
Although FASD is the leading preventable disability of learning and developmental disabilities in children and adults, affecting about 4% of Canadians, very little was known about it in the 1990s. Audrey began to educate mothers-to-be and communities regarding the danger of alcohol consumption and how it could lead to FASD in their children. She worked with local school divisions to develop materials and enhance teachers’ understanding of FASD.
In 1998, Audrey built a team of like-minded local professionals to diagnose and support individuals with FASD. Within 16 months, she spearheaded training for FASD to local communities and to front-line workers. In November 2000, she raised funds to have a team of 11 members trained in FASD diagnosis.
Ultimately, Audrey left her secure government employment in 2001 to create the first Children’s FASD Diagnostic Clinic in Alberta under the auspices of the Lakeland Centre for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Cold Lake. With Audrey as its executive director, Lakeland Centre was laser focused on its mission: Awareness, Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of FASD.
What started as a three-person office has evolved into an organization with multiple programs including diagnostics, adult and family supports, mothers-to-be mentorship, employment training, prevention and a camp facility for children with FASD. Lakeland Centre is now Canada’s Centre for Excellence in FASD diagnosis and training and is one of the longest-running FASD diagnostic programs in North America. Currently, more than 50 employees operate out of the main office in Cold Lake, as well as satellite offices in St. Paul, Bonnyville and Lac La Biche.
Lakeland Centre is also a leader in prevention services, working extensively with smaller community partners. This led to establishing the 2nd Floor Women’s Recovery Centre in 2012, which houses vulnerable people who are pregnant or at risk of pregnancy, helping them to reduce or discontinue their substance use and establish healthier lives for themselves and their babies and families. The program is the only one of its kind in the world.
In 2008, Audrey enrolled in the distance MBA program from Cape Breton University that specialized in not-for-profit and international work and completed her degree in Community Economic Development in 2010. Her thesis was titled Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: Is there a community development solution?
In the mid-2000s, the western provinces created an advisory board to guide the development of a national FASD research network to inform policy. Audrey was asked to represent Alberta and was selected to serve as board chair of Canada FASD Research Network (known as CanFASD). In 2015, CanFASD unexpectedly lost its executive director, so Audrey filled in, while running Lakeland Centre at the same time. She carried both jobs for four years, until she could train her replacement at Lakeland. Today, CanFASD is a national NGO, and Audrey is its executive director, establishing and promoting programs, and conducting research. Dating back to 2007, her list of peer-reviewed publications, book chapters and technical reports is extensive.
“It has been extremely helpful to coordinate research endeavours in Canada,” says Audrey. “We’re leading the world in a lot of the research. The rest of the world is using our research and our tools to move things forward much more quickly in other countries.”
“I still have a lot to contribute to the field, both to Canada and internationally. This is one of the few disabilities where there is still a ton of work to be done.”
Just as her relationship with Lynn influenced Audrey’s choice of careers, it also influenced how Audrey has spent much of her volunteer time. Special Olympics Alberta has built a tradition of support and opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities. In 1986, Audrey stepped up to help Cold Lake and Bonnyville launch the Lakeland District chapter of Special Olympics. Then she did the same for Lac La Biche. She would go on to serve on various boards and committees. In 1987, Audrey coached Alberta’s Cross Country Ski Team at the Special Olympics National Winter Games in Edmunston, NB, and in 1990, she coached Alberta’s Track and Field Team at the Special Olympics National Summer Games in Vancouver, BC. Audrey now chairs the Lakeland Special Olympics, which is expanding to offer more sports. Lynn continues to be involved as an athlete.
Audrey also continues to chair the Women of Influence Cold Lake Awards Committee, an initiative close to her heart for more than 10 years. Each year, Audrey coordinates the event as the quiet cheerleader along the sidelines, always finding joy in others’ accomplishments.
Audrey’s work was recognized in 2008 by the Alberta Association of Colleges and Technical Institutes when she received the Provincial Award Celebrating Excellence. In 2022, she received the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).
Audrey and Paul live on the same farm near Cold Lake where she grew up. They provide support for her parents and sister Lynn, who also live on the farm and are all very close.