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 ONE: Volunteering at Bissell Centre
I was sitting in Social Studies class in high school when I first heard about Bissell Centre. An employee from the centre came to talk about what the organization does for Edmontonians in need, and what it means to truly give back to your community. For the life of me, I cannot remember who the person was or what they did at Bissell, but the message of hope in their words is one that has stayed with me since I first heard them in 2005. I remember feeling so impacted by the warm heartedness and compassion I was hearing about. I was so amazed at how an organization could do so much for so many- how much help was really out there. And how much need for these services there really was.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I finally got around to volunteering for Bissell Centre. I had recently watched a movie called “Yes Man,” starring Jim Carrey, a movie about staring fear and apprehensions right in the face and saying “Yes” to any opportunity that comes your way. Giving what you have and going along for the ride. In the movie, Jim’s character volunteered serving soup to the homeless. And just like my mother will tell you, if I see something I want to do being done, I will find a way to do it. So, my mind was made up. I was going to serve soup to the homeless.
Well, it didn’t have to be soup. It could be anything, I just wanted to help. So I contacted the Volunteer Coordinator at the time and got the ball rolling. A few days later, I was in the basement of Bissell Centre East in the Food Room, helping sort food donations and making sandwiches for the Drop-In centre and Casual Labour workers. On this same first day, the manager of the Food Room said we would be going across the street so serve lunch. “Okay, let’s do this,” I thought. “I’m ready.”
I would love to tell you that it was just like the movies- everyone smiled and hugged each other; all the community members were polite and said thank you; and no one spilled anything. But it wasn’t. And that’s okay. I was terrified when I first walked onto the floor at the Drop-In. I felt like everyone was staring at me. People always wanted more than what you could give them, community members made crude comments and jokes. For a short time, I really wondered what I was doing there.
Then, as days passed, I realized a few profound things. First off, I was in these peoples’ living room. This is where they came to relax, get things off their chest, eat meals and feel a sense of “togetherness” in facing addiction, homelessness and mental illness. This was their community and I had to respect that.
Not before long, I was finding that more community members were smiling at me and thanking me. On my second day, a woman confided in me a great personal loss that she was battling with. People began asking how I was doing and sharing their stories. People began to respect and welcome my presence in the drop-in centre. During the entire summer I was volunteering, I kept being reminded of my desire to be at Bissell Centre and I was constantly brought back to the reason I was there. I was helping- I was making a difference.
I’m also a person who likes to explore as many avenues as I can. So, I reached out to another department and began volunteering for Recreation Services at the same time as Food Services. That volunteer experience is one I cannot (and hope not) to ever forget. Through Recreation, I went with two Bissell staff members and approximately 10 community members to an aviation museum, laser tag and Rundle Park. I watched as people who sat alone in corners, battling their addictions and cursing the world, opened up and smiled.
I could tell they were happy and felt safe with us. We had given them an opportunity to be accepted for who they were, and to be treated to a few hours of fun as a community. On the day we went to Rundle Park, everyone sat around a picnic table and took turns sharing their obstacles, goals and dreams. Some talked about quitting drinking, others talked about being drug-free and physically fit. Some talked about jobs they wanted to have, schools they wanted to go to, love they wanted to find and people they wanted to meet.
I remember feeling so impacted by the raw genuineness they expressed with their words. We were at the park to play sports and I felt apprehensive about it at first, as I have never been an athletic person. But I put my self-consciousness aside and asked who wanted to play catch with me. It started with just me and one other person, but not before long, ten people were on the grass, throwing balls and Frisbees. The participants weren’t the only ones that got a sense self pride and accomplishment that day. They made me feel special. I loved being there- every second, minute and day. It was an absolutely wonderful summer of sharing, listening, playing and mentoring.