When people come to Bissell Centre for the first time, it is often to meet the most basic of needs: a hot meal away from the cold.
That’s how it began for James.
Twenty years ago, James ate his first meal at Bissell Centre when he had nowhere else to go. At the time James was homeless and engaging in a criminal lifestyle to get by.
He had been surrounded by substance abuse and violence since he was a child. As a young man his criminal record and addictions kept him on the streets.
“When you’re a user, nobody wants you around,” he said. “It was tough to get a place.” When he did ask for help, James was used to getting pushed away.
That first experience at Bissell Centre was different. James noticed how welcoming the staff and volunteers seemed, how eager they were to help.
“They were everywhere for me. If I need help, it’s there.”
To the people who knew him at the time of his first meal at Bissell Centre twenty years ago, James is unrecognizable today. In the past few years, he has undergone an incredible transformation. It has been a long journey to health and recovery, but a worthwhile one.
After hitting a low point in 2012, when he suddenly faced a seven-year prison sentence on drug charges and feared he was throwing his life away, James got serious about getting clean. He served four of the seven years, has been sober for five years, and has been accessing Bissell’s support programs including counselling, employment, and housing services.
After years of hard work and healing, James moved into an apartment: his first permanent home in two decades.
James spends a lot of his time helping others find sobriety and health like he did. You can usually find him outside Bissell Centre chatting with the patrons. “I [tell them] what I’ve been through with the drugs, what it cost me, my time and my life,” he explained. “I try to encourage them to come my way. If they need help, I tell them where to get help.”
Because of support from our community, we will be serving over 600 turkey meals for people in need this Thanksgiving. Many of them may be walking through our doors for the first time. And for some like James, it may mean the beginning of lasting life changes for the better. Holiday meals at Bissell Centre are never just food and drink. They are community, healing, and togetherness.
This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful for our community of supporters, for the hope they inspire, and for the healing they make possible.
Give today to help more people like James this Thanksgiving!
The beginning of a new school year can be exciting, but for some families it can also be a stressful, expensive time of year. Absorbing the yearly cost of new school supplies, like back-to-school clothes, is challenging for some and impossible for others.
Corenda, a mom of five kids between the ages of two and 11, knows this reality all too well. When she moved from Saddle Lake to Edmonton in 2005, she was quickly overwhelmed by how high her living costs were. She was pregnant with her first child at the time, and as her family grew, she found herself struggling just to afford the essentials. “The cost of food and formula was crazy,” she said. “It was very tough.”
She was also dealing with an alcohol addiction and an abusive partner, and she often worried that she would end up living on the street. She lacked social supports most of us take for granted. “I guess I’ve always been kind of isolated,” she admitted. “I was fearful.”
That was when she reached out for help. “It all started off as a mental crisis,” she recounts. “I thought, I need support so I don’t feel so alone.” Corenda found Bissell Centre by searching online for affordable daycare, and discovered our free child care program.
“The staff just opened their arms to us and brought us in. That’s when I started feeling welcome and accepted in our community.”
Three of Corenda’s five children are heading to school in September. All of them use the Family Closet, a clothing donation program at Bissell Centre that offers free clothing to adults and children in need. Corenda is grateful that her kids will have the clothes they need to go back to school. “It’s important to me for them to have what they’re comfortable in and what they’re going to be proud to wear and show off to their friends,” said Corenda. “They’re so confident! They stand taller.”
With access to child care, formula and diapers, and clothes from the Family Closet, Corenda has also found an affordable home for her family and returned to university to finish her Bachelor’s degree. She and her kids now give back to those in need whenever they’re able. In fact, they frequently donate their gently used items back to the Family Closet.
“One year, we used [the Family Closet] because we didn’t have money to buy jackets that year,” she explained. “So now every year, I give my winter jackets back. Some parents don’t even have a dollar to their name. They don’t have nothing to give their kids. So I do my best to give our gently used stuff, too. That way, we kind of share with each other.”
Donate today to help more families like Corenda’s!
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 lakeâ€¦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.”
Please give to help more people
like Desmond and his family.
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.
Most people who visit Bissell Centre can immediately tell that the people we help have a special bond with one another. Carol, who performs once a month in our Drop-in Centre with her Aboriginal women’s drumming circle notes “They treat each other like brothers and sisters, moms and dads.” Diane, a long-time volunteer, also senses a special connection among the people here. “When I don’t come, I miss the people in the Drop-in Centre. They’re always stopping us and talking to us,” she says. “It’s like a family.”
The phrase “like a family” is often used by staff, volunteers, and especially by the participants themselves. But around Bissell, the word family does not always refer to people who are related by blood.
In honour of Family Day, we asked our participants about their understanding of the word “family.” Here are their answers.
Q: What does the word “family” mean to you?
“Family means being close and loving to your children, wife, or husband, and making sure that their needs are met.” – Candace
“Family is unity. It’s love. It’s not feeling lonely in this world.” – Dina
“Family is my world. My girls keep me strong and show me the value of life.” – Krystal
“I would say family is like a team. They know each other very well, they can depend on each other. These are the people whom you can depend on, and you can rely on them in any situation.” – Shalini
Q: How has being at Bissell Centre shaped your sense of family?
“Bissell Centre made me feel that I have another family outside my ownâ€¦ It gives me a sense of belonging.” – Billy
“Bissell Centre strengthens us as a family. [It] helps us build a better future.” – Davina
“My son and daughter have had an amazing experience [at the daycare]â€¦ My children see you all as family. I see so much good here.” – Angela
“Bissell Centre has given us a sense of belonging, tradition, and foundation to start from. The staff has encouraged us to grow and always gives us something to look forward to.” – Kayla
“I don’t know what I would have done without all of the staff [at Bissell]. Look! Now I am sitting in my own home. I consider ALL of the staff to be my family.” – Judy
“Bissell Centre is a big support for immigrants like us. We are a low-income family, and Bissell has given lots of resources, like clothing, diapers, and toys for the kids.” – Shalini
We’ve watched our family at Bissell Centre grow and change for over 100 years thanks to your support. Thank you for helping us assist families of all kinds in our community.
Happy Family Day, from our family to yours!
2016 was an incredible year thanks to our dedicated supporters! Here are some of our favourite moments of 2016.
1) Thousands of Pairs of New Underwear Collected for People in Need
In June, we held our third annual Drop Your Gonch underwear drive, and we set out to raise 2000 pairs of new underwear. The people we serve are always in need of new underwear, an essential item that is rarely donated. Our supporters surprised and amazed us once again: altogether, we collected 3605 pairs for people in need! Visit our campaign page and learn more about the initiative.
2) Struggling Families Treated to an Unforgettable Summer Camp Experience
For decades, Moonlight Bay Centre, our lakefront property at Lake Wabamun, has been a place of solace, rest, and rejuvenation for struggling families. Through traditional summer camp activities, kids and adults alike made meaningful connections while enjoying a respite from the stress of city life. This year, 40 adults and 65 children attended camp at Moonlight Bay Centre. The photos and video footage that we compiled from this summer capture the spirit our one-of-a-kind camp. View the video and photos here.
3) Bissell Centre Opens Permanent Supportive Housing for People with FASD
On September 9th, we held a grand opening for Hope Terrace, a housing complex for people living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. At Hope Terrace, 24-hour assistance is available for the occupants, including help attending doctor’s appointments and opportunities for community integration. The project is the first of its kind in Canada, and has even inspired similar initiatives in other cities. Learn more about Hope Terrace here.
4) Thanksgiving Twice as Special this Year
We served over 3000 special holiday meals in 2016, but it was in early October that we were able to go the extra mile for our participants. Because of our generous donors, we served twice as many Thanksgiving meals! Your help provided warmth and community at a time of year where it’s needed most. Thank you! Was it a good time? The video we made speaks volumes.
5) Outreach Housing Team Smashes First Year Goal
In September 2015, our newly-created Outreach Housing Team hoped to house 200 people in its first year in operation. But the team surprised everyone by easily crushing their goal, helping 200 people transition off the streets by July 2016, and housing a grand total of 247 people in its first twelve months. Thanks to their efforts, 329 people now have homes, a fresh perspective, and–most importantly–new hope for the future.
6) Bissell Elves Spread Cheer and Raise Funds at Southgate Centre
More than 353 people volunteered as Bissell Elves this holiday season, serving meals, sorting donations, and helping us prepare for holiday festivities. But it was our gift-wrapping fundraiser at Southgate Centre Mall that needed the most support. Showing us what the true spirit of the season is all about, 190 volunteers logged more than 1,300 hours of gift wrapping, raising over $17,000 for people in need in our community. We are so grateful! Check out the Bissell Elf Campaign page to learn more.
7) New Year’s Day Dinner Saved!
For 25 years, the inner city community has been able to enjoy a holiday meal on New Year’s Day hosted by Bissell Centre. This year, the economic downturn threatened the success of this cherished New Year’s tradition. But when we reached out for help, our friends in the community came through for us once again, and the offers for support poured in. This Sunday, more than 600 community members are expected to attend the meal where there will be live music, a delicious turkey dinner, and gifts for each guest. Read more about how this year’s meal was rescued by awesome partners in the community.
As the year draws to a close and we remember all that we’ve accomplished in 2016, we look forward to the new year energized and inspired by your generosity. We are also reminded that the work that we do at Bissell Centre would never be possible without your support.
From the bottom of our hearts…..
Help create more memories like these by joining our family of supporters today. Make a donation by year-end to receive a 2016 tax credit. Thank you if you’ve already given this year, your support is changing lives!
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
Today marks the Outreach Housing Team’s 1st year anniversary! We were able to launch this housing initiative as a result of the hugely successful Scona Treehouse fundraising event in March, 2015.
The Outreach Housing Team met their initial goal to house 200 people in their first 10 months. Today, the team has housed 247 people! We are incredibly proud of the accomplishments both past and present team members have achieved.
The Outreach Housing Team has helped numerous people find housing this year. Below is just one of their incredible success stories.
When he was not living on the streets, 59 year-old Solomon spent time at Operation Friendship Seniors Society, a non-profit that offers affordable housing options to seniors in the inner city. He also worked odd jobs through Bissell Centre’s Employment Program.
Things were looking up, and Solomon’s years of homelessness looked like they would come to an end, when he moved in with his longtime girlfriend. But, just as Solomon’s circumstances were about to change for the better, his partner passed away unexpectedly, leaving him homeless once again.
Having exhausted most of his options, Solomon was invited to stay in his previous employer’s garage. It was this employer who eventually referred Solomon to Bissell’s Outreach Housing Team. Within eight days, Solomon had successfully accessed this service, applied for housing, was approved, and moved into a small, comfortable one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette. Bissell Centre also provided Solomon with a number of household items to get him started, including: pots, pans, cooking utensils, dishware, and some food.
Solomon’s daughter, who lives out of town, felt powerless to help her father. She was relieved that he finally found a safe, permanent residence. In an email to Bissell Centre’s housing team, she expressed her gratitude: “I don’t know who exactly was helping my dad get a place but I just want to send a huge THANK YOU to all of you for helping homeless people. I live in Toronto and my dad needs to stay there in Edmonton. I was so worried about him and the place sounds great. Thank you very very very very much!”
When Carly and her partner separated earlier this year, she found herself and her two small children in a women’s shelter with nowhere else to go. Being new to Edmonton, Carly did not have the support network of friends and family that many of us take for granted, and she knew she needed help. That’s when she was referred to Bissell Centre, whose daycare program has been a “life saver”. Her son Echo and her daughter Star (aged two and four), use the daycare once a week. “It’s given me the chance to either do chores or shopping or appointments, and, being a single parent, I don’t have any other opportunity to do that,” she says. “When there’s no one else around – I don’t have family and stuff here, so it’s really needed for me.”
“I haven’t been coming here very long, just a few months, but I’ve had help with food, clothes, diapers. It helps me out so much.”
But the daycare has done more than free up her time once a week. Carly has noticed a particular change in her daughter Star since she began bringing her to the daycare centre; most notably, an upswing in confidence. “She’s even made friends and been invited to a birthday party here. And just learning and getting to be social with other kids – it’s very, very helpful. She looks forward to coming here once a week.” The program has even helped prepare Star for kindergarten, which she will be starting in the fall: “This is like her preschool. It’s getting her ready.”
In addition the daycare program, Carly also utilizes other helpful programs at Bissell Centre. Carly sometimes struggles to make rent and other monthly expenses, but she makes ends meet with Bissell’s help. “I haven’t been coming here very long, just a few months, but I’ve had help with food, clothes, diapers. It helps me out so much.” Bissell Centre’s Community Closet, which is stocked with clothing donations from the public, has helped Carly provide clothes to her children. “It’s great,” she says. “There’s lots of stuff here for all ages, adult men and women, boys, girls, kids [but] we definitely need more stuff in there.”
Carly is now preparing to send Star to kindergarten in the fall, confident that she will begin her schooling well-clothed, well-fed, and well-prepared. “[These programs are] so needed,” she adds. “And the kids are benefiting the most. They might not otherwise get a chance to be in an environment like this where they can play and learn and stuff. We really need to gather together and support this place.”
We’re proud to announce that our Outreach Housing Team has met its ambitious goal of housing 200 people–and they did it 3 months ahead of schedule!
In early 2015, students from Strathcona High School raised $190,000 for Bissell Centre as part of their Treehouse Project fundraiser. These funds went towards establishing our Outreach Housing Team (OHT), a new program dedicated to locating, engaging, and housing people who are homeless. Since then, the OHT has successfully housed 200 people, a figure that continues to climb with each passing week.
One of the people helped by our Outreach Housing Team is “Steven,” who up until last year was homeless and sleeping in the River Valley. Steven’s social anxiety stopped him from accessing the help he needed. “At the time I was very bad with communicating with people,” he says. “I didn’t like phone calls.” But Steven knew he needed to make a change, and decided to contact Bissell Centre. He was quickly put in touch with our Outreach Housing Team, who found him a house in August 2015.
Since then, Steven has returned to school and is working on a marketing degree. He has plans to start his own business after graduation. Even though he was at first afraid to ask for help, he encourages anyone who is in the same position to reach out to someone. “You have to do it,” he says. “Life is damn scary. But you have to walk into the dark a bit sometimes to find the light.”
“Life is damn scary. But you have to walk into the dark a bit sometimes to find the light.”
– Steven, Housing Participant
Because there are few strict criteria that a candidate must meet to be eligible to access OHT services, people who do not qualify for similar housing initiatives can almost always get help through OHT. The team’s focus on keeping the paperwork to a minimum has made the housing process simple and streamlined, allowing them to house more people with fewer resources than other housing programs.
“It’s amazing how much you guys help,” says Steven. “Anyone who needs help – phone the Outreach Housing Team. They’re the ones that care, and they’ll do what it takes to get you off the streets. There are organizations who get thirty or forty million dollars in funding a year who don’t do as much.”
We are proud of the work the OHT has done over the past several months. But now, as funds dwindle and resources become scarcer, the support of the community has never been more important. It began with a group of extraordinary high school students and has resulted in 200 people like Steven finding homes and new hope for the future. Our hope is that the OHT will continue to grow and evolve with the help of our caring, dedicated community.
Thank you for your support!
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