I don’t have very clear memories of the first time I came to Bissell Centre, but I know my life would look very different today if I hadn’t stepped through the doors of that old brick building 40 years ago.
I was only 12 at the time, but Bissell Centre gave me something that I hadn’t felt beforeâ€¦belonging.
This time of year, poverty and struggle hits the hardest, especially for kids. I remember what it was like to know there’d be no gifts under the Christmas tree, no big fancy dinner, nothing to make it feel any different than any other day.
On a day like that, it would go a long way to have someone tell you that you’re a good person who deserves good things.
When your life has been emptied by poverty and struggle, the smallest act of kindness can fill your heart more than you could ever know.
Growing up, we were always poor. But when my dad was killed in an accident, things got even worse for my mom and us kids. The first time I turned to Bissell Centre, I really had no idea just how it would change me for the rest of my life.
When you grow up not knowing there is anything better, you start to believe that there will never be anything more.
Bissell Centre changed this for me. I didn’t fully understand when I was just a kid – what 12 year old really would? But the help they gave my family, and continued to offer me as I got older, completely changed my life.
I grew up being committed to Bissell Centre, and forty years after that very first experience, I have worked most of my adult life to repay everything I received. I started by wiping down tables. Just to help out. Really, it was the least I could do.
They had given me food and shelter and clothes and helped me find a job. They had given me a safe place to come to when I needed it most.
From there, I took on more and more roles. Doing dishes. Making coffee for when people come in the morning. Eventually cooking and serving meals, and helping guide people who came to Bissell Centre and weren’t too sure about what was offered.
Please donate to help change lives this Christmas
Today, I have been volunteering and now officially a member of staff at Bissell Centre for over twenty years. I’ve worked in eight different departments; I’ve talked to thousands of people. It gives me such a sense of purpose to know that, in one way or another, I’ve helped every person who has come through the front door.
And that feels pretty great.
In my time at Bissell Centre, I’ve been given many awards for my volunteer service. I am humbled by each and every one of them, and while these awards give me a great sense of pride in the work I’ve done, I didn’t do any of this for the recognition.
I did it because Bissell Centre is the right place for me.
That’s why it was such a huge surprise and a huge honour when a former premier of Alberta nominated me for a Diamond Jubilee Medal – awarded to volunteers across the country for their service and dedication to the community. I could never have imagined such an honour.
None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for supporters who believe that people like me deserve the chance to find a new life and new meaning.
A lot of people who come to Bissell Centre aren’t necessarily homeless. They are struggling for whatever reasons, and really need some help. For people like this, it’s more than just about surviving – it’s about being lifted out of a bad circumstance by taking back some confidence and worth.
Young guys come in to Bissell Centre to use the employment services and we can give them the kinds of basic things they need to get work and keep work. When you struggle every day just to get by, a shower, a change of good clothes, and a brown-bagged lunch is just the boost you need to boost your confidence and make you feel worth something.
It makes a guy feel normal.
Leaving for work in the morning with a cup of coffee and a lunch in your hand seems like a pretty regular thing. But for so many, this is something that they’ve never had.
Christmas at Bissell Centre is probably pretty different than what you are used to. But in all the ways it matters, it is the same.
We have our big family Christmas dinner – several times through the month of December – where everyone comes together to share a great meal and some laughs, away from the cold. And we make sure that everyone – especially the kids – gets a present.
It feels so great to see the look of joy when someone comes in off the street, just hoping for a place to warm up a bit and maybe grab a bite to eat, and they get treated to a Christmas feast and a gift. Maybe the first Christmas gift they’ve had in years. And not old hand-me-down toys or old clothes.
New toys. New shoes. New warm clothing to wear when, at the end of the night, they have to head back out into the cold.
Little kids leave with the kind of excitement they should have at Christmas. It’s a little different than how most experience it, but their happiness shines as brightly as a kid who eagerly waits to see what Santa has brought them. And their Bissell Centre family – the workers, volunteers and other clients – can’t help but feel overjoyed to be together in this special moment.
This Christmas at Bissell Centre, we will be grateful for any support you can give. I hope that when you are celebrating with your family, you will think of us too.
– Neil, Bissell Centre employee and former participant