Camping is one of the most popular summer pastimes in Canada. This year, it’s more popular than ever before, with a record number of Albertans planning to enjoy the great outdoors while spending some quality time with loved ones. But for many families in our community, camping is a luxury they cannot afford, and many kids have never been given the opportunity to experience it.
When Desmond, a father of three young children, applied to bring his family to one of Bissell Centre’s family camps at Moonlight Bay, he didn’t know what to expect. His family had never gone camping together before. “Money was tight,” he recalls, explaining that he had recently been laid off from work. “I had to hang on to every cent I saved. Before my friend mentioned the camp, I’d never even thought about doing anything camp-related together.”
Desmond, his wife, and his three children were invited to attend a three-day family camp at Moonlight Bay Centre, Bissell Centre’s lakefront property on Wabamun Lake. “I didn’t expect we would get our own cottage,” says Desmond. “I didn’t expect the food to be so good. And I didn’t expect so many activities. The camp was beyond my expectations.” During their three-day getaway, Desmond and his family were able to take a break from the stresses of everyday life. “It gave us the chance to get out of the city, be together, enjoy nature, enjoy the company of other families.”
The trip was full of new experiences, especially for Desmond’s children. “It gave them so much to do with the park, the basketball court, the fire pit, the lake…they loved it all!” Going to camp may have even allowed Desmond’s son to discover a new passion. “He really loved the little basketball court that was there,” Desmond explains. “Before, he didn’t play too much. But when we got home, we bought him a new basketball.” His daughter loved meeting new friends and participating in the arts and crafts, while his wife’s favourite part of the trip was the drumming around the fire pit every evening. Desmond himself was able to go canoeing for the first time in his life.
Being away from the noise of the city also allowed Desmond some time to step back and reflect. “I think we’re always learning something while being a parent. All the time. [I learned] just how grateful I am to be a dad. Sometimes, I forget how grateful I am to have three beautiful kids.”
Desmond’s camping experience was so unforgettable that he hopes to do it again this year. He would ask anyone considering supporting the program to think of how much it means to families like his. “I’d let them be aware of the impact they would have on the lives of all those families who have gone to camp,” he said. “It’s giving them a chance to experience something they may not have experienced before. [It] makes a difference.”
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Many people view Easter as a time of renewal, rejuvenation, and hope. After all, it reminds us that no matter how long or cold the winter has been, we can always feel hope for the coming spring.
Not many people had a longer or colder winter than Davina and Shawn, two Edmontonians who say that Bissell Centre helped them get their lives turned around. Both have struggled with poverty, homelessness, and addiction for much of their adult lives.
Shawn and Davina were married in the summer of 2016, six years after meeting each other for the first time at an AA meeting. Their earliest days together were difficult, as both were living on a low income while trying to overcome their issues with addiction. After they’d been living together for a while, they were overjoyed to discover that Davina was pregnant—but their joy would be short-lived. “We ended up losing the baby,” says Shawn. “That was really hard.” Shawn and Davina suffered a relapse shortly afterward that lasted months. Davina knew that they needed to change their lifestyle if they wanted to make a home for Noah, her two-year-old son from a previous relationship. “We cleaned up,” she says. “We weren’t sure if we were going to make it.” Davina decided to enter a one-year treatment program for her addiction.
Shawn’s and Davina’s health began to improve, and before long, Davina was pregnant again. “But then,” says Shawn, “The cops came knocking on my door one day and arrested me.” Shawn was detained for a past infraction, and ended up serving several months in the penitentiary in Vancouver. “At my worst, I used to do a lot of bad stuff,” he explained. “The past [came] back to haunt me.” Shawn was flown out of Edmonton to serve his sentence, leaving Davina, pregnant and still undergoing treatment, alone. “It was hard,” says Davina. “It was really hard. Being in treatment and writing letters [to Shawn] and being pregnant. And then, not having anywhere to go after treatment.”
Many times, says Davina, living with poverty and addiction has made her feel “like the scum of society.” “I felt like, here’s the normal people, and then here’s me,” she says. “I didn’t really trust. I felt like I was looked down upon, like I was judged.” Bissell Centre was what helped Davina take the first few steps away from her old life. After her daughter was born, Davina brought her to Bissell Centre’s daycare for the first time. “The staff were so supportive,” she says. “I’ve shared my history with [them], and there were no judgements at all. It was open arms. Like, we’re so glad to be able to help you.”
“The staff were so supportive. I’ve shared my history with [Bissell Centre] and there were no judgements at all. It was open arms. Like, we’re so glad to be able to help you.”
The daycare service made a world of difference to Davina and Shawn. “We were able to go to [AA] meetings,” says Davina. “That was huge. And we were able to do counselling, make appointments…I got to finish treatment…” Shawn cuts in, “We got to put our lives back together.”
The daycare program has even allowed Davina to return to school, where she is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in sociology. “Fatima gives me two days a week so that I can do my schooling during the day,” says Davina. “She gives me extra time if I need to write a paper or study for an exam. And that has helped a lot. I don’t know what I’d do without Fatima.” Shawn adds, “It takes you from a place where you don’t really trust anybody to a place where you can believe in people again.”
Of course, things are still far from perfect for Davina and Shawn and their growing family. Although Shawn is thankful to have a steady source of income, his camp job takes him out of town for weeks at a time, leaving Davina alone much of the time to take care of their children. It will get easier, says Davina, once the kids are old enough to go to school. But for now, Davina and Shawn will have to do what they’ve always done: carry on together.
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Roger arrived in Edmonton 17 years ago, when he was 49 years old. A few years before he moved, he was hurt in a firefighting accident and spent a year in a body cast. After that, he couldn’t go back to firefighting, and started working for a soft drink company instead.
He worked there for nine years, while living in Edmonton. When he retired, he found that he could no longer make ends meet and quickly became homeless. That’s when he found out about Bissell Centre, and came for his first visit—about seven years ago.
Our staff could see right away that he had a kind heart, as he opened up about his story over coffee and a snack in our Drop-in Centre. We were pleased when he returned the next day, and overjoyed when he came back multiple times over the next week!
For the next five years, Roger lived on the streets of Edmonton’s inner city. He made a shelter out of a tarp, for himself, down in the river valley. He never carried personal items with him, like photos or mementos, for fear that they would be stolen or damaged. And whenever he could, he’d come visit us at Bissell Centre.
Even though his past has been difficult, the Roger that we’ve come to know and love is a man full of compassion and generosity. A few years ago, he lost his sister, a niece and a granddaughter to an impaired driver. But instead of letting bitterness overcome him, he puts his energy into loving the family he does have—as well as his family here at Bissell Centre.
He even manages to send his two remaining grandchildren some money to put towards their education fund—whatever he makes from odd jobs.
“I made a promise to a friend before she passed away. She asked me to help people if I could. I told her I would and I’ve done it up to this day.”
Not long after he started visiting Bissell Centre regularly, Roger also started volunteering with us. When we asked him if he wanted to help out, he was eager to start giving back. And since he already loved spending time with our community—building trust and friendships with everyone he met—he was the perfect fit.
Two years ago, after five years of trying to find a housing situation that was within his means, Roger found a new home with the ongoing help and support of Bissell Centre’s Housing Services. We’ve been so encouraged by the steady growth we’ve seen in this gem of a man, and are thrilled that at 66, he has a place to call home—both at his apartment and here at Bissell.
When we asked Roger why he’s so passionate about giving back, he said, “I made a promise to a friend before she passed away. She asked me to help people if I could. I told her I would and I’ve done it up to this day.” Getting housed was another part of this commitment—showing by example that it is possible for anyone coming in off the streets to get housed.
Roger has truly become a part of our family here, and we’re as delighted as he is, by the relationships he’s built. “I’m either Dad, Uncle, or Grandpa around here,” he says proudly, describing his role to the other community members at Bissell Centre.
As he continues to volunteer with us, he’s continually a beacon of friendliness, hope and understanding for everyone he comes in contact with, and we’re so grateful for his faithful willingness to help.
Please give to help more people like Roger by donating here: bissellcentre.org/donate
Hard as things got for Joe* he never gave up. Bissell Centre never gave up on him either. Look at what happened!
Employed for many years in the hospitality industry, Joe faced some serious health problems. He couldn’t sustain full time work so Bissell Centre helped with casual labour placements when Joe needed some work. Joe’s health problems were so serious they required six operations to address. Demoralized and losing hope, he was encouraged by social workers to apply for AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped).
Through his ongoing relationship with Employment Services, Joe felt he had” someone in his corner” and never completely gave up. Our Jobs First coordinator got to work with Joe and together they took actions to increase Joe’s skill development, self-awareness, confidence, and his competencies.
Last week Joe completed his second interview with a major Canadian coffee company and was hired as the Regional Manager for Quality Control. Joe’s new position will start in mid-August and his starting wage is $60,000 plus a generous benefits package.
Joe told us he now wants to speak at our pre-employment sessions about his positive experience in our Employment Services program but more importantly to act as a testimony to never giving up.
Our mission is to work with others to move people from poverty to prosperity. When you support Bissell Centre, this one example of how you help change lives.
Please consider supporting Bissell Centre’s life-changing work in our community.
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* Not his real name
This is the story shared with Bissell Centre by one of our supporters, Patti Jones. Thank you for passing it along to us and allowing it to be shared! We hope it encourages you, your family, your community and/or your place of work to talk about how we view our most vulnerable and what we might be able to do to help.
My mom always said, “help should begin at home.”
My dad was divorced from my mom when I was six months old. He was an alcoholic most of his life and struggled with his own demons. He lived in the inner city of most of his life – the last few in a rooming house not far from the downtown station. He didn’t give us a lot of opportunity to see him often, but it’s organizations like yours [Bissell Centre] that gave him some hope to get through another day. It also gives families, who are in situations similar to our families, the peace of mind that there are places their loved ones can go to for help.
You truly build a community with those in need, either impoverished or homeless, and it still makes me smile.
I recall one visit my sister and I made to our dad not long before he passed away. He took us on a walk through the neighbourhood late at night, which was a little scary for me and my sister. We went to the liquor store to buy him alcohol, because that was easier to bear than the alternative (that he might pick through garbage to find bottles to exchange for cash to pay for his booze). It was one way we could show him love – understanding that he wasn’t going to change or stop drinking. When we walked with him, many of the street people knew him, (as Freddy McDougall), and we had the opportunity to say hello to his friends. It didn’t take us any longer than that walk to learn they truly look after each other.
A few months after that night, my father had not been seen for a few days around the rooming house and it was one of those friends who called the police to report it. The police broke down his door to get in his room and that is when he was found. He had passed away from what they believe was heart failure. Had it not been for such a tight community in that rooming house and neighbourhood, he could have been left unfound much longer. Read More…
Recently out of jail, a man came to Bissell Centre looking to make a change in his life. He showed a great deal of motivation, but needed some assistance to gain additional skills and confidence to start a career and get a full-time job. He joined our Moving Up pre-employment program and looked to his peers and program facilitator for support. Through the course of the four week program we helped him develop a work plan, complete job searches, and pick an industry for work – construction!
Through the training (safety tickets), coaching, supported job searches, resume building, and interview skills he received, he now is working full-time in the construction industry and making $27/hour!
If you would like to support our work in helping people make positive changes in their life, and motivating them to move from poverty to prosperity, please visit our Donate page.
This story was written by one of Bissell Centre’s Homeless to Homes participants. *Name has been changed to protect the participant’s privacy.
My name is Jennifer*. I became homeless about four years ago. Prior to becoming homeless, I was in an abusive relationship with a common law partner for approximately 10 years. The moment that I made the decision to leave this relationship was the moment I became homeless. I knew that’s what I was choosing, but the experience that I had in this relationship was so bad that I felt like I had no alternatives.
Being homeless is pretty rough. There were many moments when I was homeless that I felt scared and angry. I found that the amount of alcohol I drank increased when I was homeless, and I spent time picking bottles to make enough money to purchase more liquor. I spent most nights at inner city shelters, and at times, when I had no other options I even stayed outside. Read More…
Bissell Centre employee Sissy Thiessen shares her story of assuming the various positions of volunteer, program participant and employee within Bissell. This is a three-part series that will be published separately.
By: Sissy Thiessen
PART 2: Me as a Participant of Bissell Centre
The next phase I entered in my journey at Bissell was on the other side of the table- as a program participant. While I was still a volunteer, the manager of Food Services offered me an opportunity to participate in a First Aid Course as part of a women’s program that was running at the time. It was a full day course, offering a certificate in Standard First Aid, as well as infant-level CPR c. Realizing an opportunity for professional development when I see one, I jumped at the offer. There were about 10 of us, all appearing to be of First Nations descent. Some were with child, others said they had to make stressful arrangements to coordinate child care for the day. Read More…
Yesterday a lovely family came into our Childcare Centre bearing gifts for our children – mini candy canes, a turkey for our Food Services program, and a beautiful Christmas card and typed letter for our Childcare staff. This family came from Russia a year and a half ago, and moved to Edmonton six months ago with little money and no jobs. They had brought their two daughters (ages 4 and 2) to our Childcare when they first arrived to Edmonton. They needed someone to watch their kids so that they could apply for jobs and do interviews. Once they found employment, they needed our services until they could get their kids into an affordable daycare. They came back yesterday with gratitude on their faces, in their hands, and written in their beautiful card.
This is what their letter said:
“Words alone can’t begin to thank you for all the love and care you have given us. We are very grateful to have had your faces to greet us every morning. Without you guys we don’t know how well we would have made it. You helped us in good times and bad and gave us the extra confidence we needed to go on. You were always there to tell us everything will be okay.
We are writing to let you know how much we have appreciated the excellent job you have done over the period while my daughters have been attending your daycare centre. They have really thrived in your centre, thanks to your nurturing and creativity.
Thank you very much for the services your daycare centre has extended to us during the period of crisis. Indeed, it is really your personal care that made us assured of our children, when we were forced to go for some job due to some pressing needs.
Though many services could not be measured in terms of money as compensation, we cannot forget your services and motherly affection to our children when they were with you. Even though it’s difficult to be away from them while we are working, we have peace of mind in knowing that they are in such good hands during those times.
From the bottoms of our hearts, we express our sincere gratitude to your service once again and thank you very much.
WISHING YOU ALL A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND THE HAPPIEST OF NEW YEARS.”
If you’d like to donate to our Childcare program, click here!
I wrote this little story – a blend of fiction and non-fiction – some years ago and just rediscovered it in my personal archives (which is a nice way of saying, among the stacks of papers kept in many boxes). It was written in the summer-time, but for me, it is a Christmas story about hope and change. I hope you like it.
Like you, I am frequently approached for a hand-out by someone on the street. Sometimes I hand over some change. Sometimes I don’t. When I don’t is when I find myself rationalizing that I don’t want to support someone’s drinking habit. Giving them a sandwich would be more appropriate, I tell myself. But of course, I don’t carry a sandwich in my pocket and I don’t go buy them one. I just walk away with my self-sustaining rationale.
I bet most of us do that more often than not. Yes, I know. Handing over a dollar won’t solve anything. What difference will I make? Maybe I will cause more harm than good. Who knows? Then I remember a fellow I knew years ago. His name was Ernie. He had been on the streets for twenty years – a heavy drinker, the personification of a “bum.” The kind of man you walk around if you see him coming down the street. All of my colleagues figured he would die on the streets.
Ernie comes to mind for a couple reasons. First, because he was always willing to share what he had – which wasn’t much – with anyone who asked. He was just that way, an all around nice guy (despite his rough appearance), even when drunk on Lysol or cheap wine. Second, one day Ernie just quit drinking and never started again — at least for as long as I kept track of him anyway, which was for several years.
One day I asked why he just stopped drinking.
He gave me a big smile and shook his head. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I just woke up one morning and said that’s it. I’m done. I threw out what little booze I had in my room, took the empties to the depot and headed to the Gold Nugget for breakfast.”
I guess I was looking for more of a watershed moment from Ernie, some kind of spiritual turning point – anything other than “I don’t really know.”
“Something troubling you, son?”
I shook my head. “I just thought you would know the reason.”
Ernie laughed. “I can think of some now, looking back. Like I didn’t want to die yet. But at the time, the honest truth is I didn’t know. I just quit.” He paused for a moment. Ernie had always been a thoughtful man and had an uncanny sense of other people. “You,” he said. “You were good to me – and the others at the drop-in, you know, the workers there.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I wasn’t fishing though…”
“Maybe you were, maybe you weren’t,” Ernie said. “But it’s true anyways. It wasn’t that you were social workers. You were just people, decent you know. You gave me change, bummed me smokes, gave me rides when my arthritis was bad. You just hung out and talked. I never got the feeling you were trying to save me. I hated that – people trying to save me.”
I didn’t know quite what to say, so I shifted gears. “So did you enjoy your breakfast that first day – you know, at the Gold Nugget.”
“Nope,” Ernie said. “I got sick like a dog, and then I gave all my change to Stanley – you know him, right?”
“He was in a bad way and needed a fix more than I needed my little bit of cash.”
“I understand,” I said.
Ernie looked at me. He smiled a little. “I imagine you do, son. I imagine you do.”
I don’t know where Ernie is today, but I have a feeling he is alive and sober. He’s still poor no doubt and living day to day on his disability checks. He’s probably still off the streets living in a small room in McCauley or somewhere along 118th Avenue.
But one thing I know for sure. When Ernie comes across an outstretched hand, he stops and gives them what he can. Knowing him, he likely has a chat as well. And when he finally does move along, he’s not wondering if he should have bought them a sandwich. Maybe he understands these things better than we do because he was there and then one day things just changed. I figure that if that can happen to an old alcoholic bum named Ernie, maybe it can happen to other folks, too, even folks like you and me.
The very last time I saw Ernie was a couple years after I left my job in the inner city. I was walking along Whyte Avenue on my way to Greenwoods to buy a book. He was headed the other way, moving slowly with his wooden cane.
“Hey, Ernie,” I said. “Long time.”
Ernie looked up at me and smiled. It took him a moment to recognize me. “Mark,” he said. “How’s things?”
“Good,” I said. “Real good. You?”
“Same as usual. My leg hurts a bit more lately than usual, but can’t complain really.”
We stood there for a few minutes, talking about other folks we knew, those who had died, others who had left town, the few who were still walking 96th Street each day. People streamed by us, oblivious to our reunion, except for a young man in a business suit who gave us a dirty look for being in his way.
Ernie smiled at the man. “To have old friends, son, you got to make a few first.”
I laughed. The young man didn’t, but he went away.
And then it was time. “Mark,” Ernie said. “I should be getting on.”
We said our goodbyes and then continued on our separate ways. A few steps later, I turned around. “Ernie,” I yelled.
Ernie turned half way toward me
“Good to see you,” I said.
Ernie nodded and gave me a little wave with his cane and then shuffled off through the crowd.
As I waved back I caught my reflection in the shop window. I stepped forward to get a better look but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to frighten people in the store gawking like some stalker! So I crossed the street and walked into the bookstore. I felt different somehow, but wasn’t sure why. All I know is I felt somehow changed by an old man with a bum leg who had quit drinking years ago for reasons he didn’t understand at the time.
Like most people, I wish for a lot of things in my life. I hope my children will be happy. I hope my wife loves me as much as I love her. I would like more money, who wouldn’t? I hope for less violence and pain in the world.
I also wish I could be more like Ernie. And on that day in the middle of summer, I wished for that more than anything.