How Michelle rose above adversity and is thriving today
This is Michelle. She grew up in Edmonton. Whenever Michelle returns to Edmonton, she sits on the curb next to Bissell Centre’s community space. “This is where she sat,” Michelle says. “And I feel like she’s still here. I tell her that I love her whenever I sit here.”
Michelle’s mom regularly visited Bissell Centre, requiring services from drop-in supports to the housing program. “My mom was a residential school survivor, she became addicted to alcohol and drugs over the years. She was the most loving, kind mom before that.”
She sits on the curb, lights the sage in a small cast iron skillet and places her headphones into her ears. She takes a long breath and starts talking to her mom. She tells her how she’s taking care of the babies, getting her degree, and working in corporate now – that she’s doing really good.
When Michelle says she’s doing really good, this carries a very heavy weight. This means she’s helping her children heal, providing for her family, and moving forward away from the cycle of poverty she knew. She’s breaking Intergenerational trauma and overcoming systemic oppression. And she’s able to give back.
Another breath and she begins singing. Not starting with a whisper, but right from the bottom of her feet, out her mouth, and reverberating across 96 Street. Wandering up and down the alleyway where her mother passed away, she releases every emotion in her being with every word she sings.
Where Michelle is today
Today, Michelle is a social worker with a background in childcare and Indigenous culture. She now lives in central Alberta. She is part of an Alberta Health Services advisory council, where she regularly attends meetings to help offer better services to all Albertans.
It was not an easy path. Growing up in poverty and with parents experiencing addiction meant she had to work four times as hard to get where she is today. Michelle was able to find a path that was healthier and more fulfilling for her and her family.
Michelle’s Journey to Bissell
As a child, Michelle (along with her mother and three siblings) left their northern Alberta community to escape toxic family dynamics and domestic violence. The family travelled to Edmonton for a better life. But both of her parents quickly experienced addictions, and it wasn’t long before Michelle’s mother found herself living in Edmonton without shelter.
After she became a parent, Michelle came to Bissell Centre for some basic needs, the child care program, and the parent program. This is where she met childcare worker Fatima and family supports worker Cheryl. Michelle felt honoured that these women heard her story and believed she could one day leave poverty behind – once and for all. It was the first time Michelle felt like her support was nonjudgmental, encouraging, and believed in her goals.
“Being an Indigenous woman, in my experience, was being told to be quiet a lot,” Michelle says. She points out how Bissell’s service delivery approach helped her heal from her trauma. “Many programs [from other service providers] would often parent or monitor my life. Bissell treated me like a person. They gave me wings to fly.”
Michelle and her siblings each had their own challenges with poverty and addiction as they grew into adults. Though Michelle overcame her challenges, much of her family succumbed to their challenges. She honours her only brother’s death in 2015, her youngest sister’s death from COVID in 2022, and her sister-in-law’s death that same year. By 2016, her mother’s life would be cut short by complications due to pneumonia.
Michelle’s Giving Back
Speaking from her experiences, Michelle thinks trauma is often not openly spoken about. She did not have access to many role models speaking eloquently about the realities of being Indigenous. She’s learning to manage her trauma through post-secondary education, her art, her work as a facilitator, and being a two-spirited leader. She is a strong Indigenous mother teaching her children about their culture, history, customs, and their connections back to the land.
After she finished her ceremony, she walked around the corner to the folks standing in line at the Community Space. Michelle spots an elderly Indigenous woman and gifts her the tobacco. She hears about how her new friend just found her new place to call home. The tobacco will hang in the new home – Michelle’s gift as an act of healing.
Michelle comes back, smiling wide as she cleans from her own healing ritual. She tells us how happy she is for her new friends. “They’re doing really good!”
We were excited to open the doors to our Community Space on August 17, 2020, once again providing an inviting, engaging and welcoming environment for the community. Operations look a little different during Covid-19, but participant needs always come first at Bissell Centre. While we adapt our activities to meet health and safety requirements set out by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, we remain committed to our community and meeting their needs in a friendly space.
How have operations changed in the Community Space?
Screening and Sanitizing: We will be conducting health screens at the door. Individuals without COVID-19 symptoms will wash/sanitize their hands upon entry.
Food Safety: We will continue to provide healthy food and beverages, which will be served to participants in individual packaging, and there will not be any sharing of food.
Reduced Capacity: To maintain physical distancing requirements, the Community Space will have a maximum capacity of 30 people at any one time. We will be monitoring numbers at the door so that as many people as possible can gain access to services throughout the morning.
Tracking: We will also be tracking attendees that come to the Community Space. Should a case of COVID-19 be present in the future, this information can be used for potential contact tracing.
Reduced Hours: This applies only to “drop-in” services, allowing time to maintain cleaning and sanitizing procedures in our building. This also provides staff more one-to-one time with participants to help them move out of poverty.
Face Coverings: Are mandatory to access the space although exceptions are allowed as per the City of Edmonton Bylaw 19408
How these changes may affect the community?
Eliminating poverty remains our vision and our top priority. The “drop-in” nature of the Community Space provides immediate essential needs and also serves as a platform for Bissell staff to engage with participants to help them achieve long-term success. Reducing capacity in the community space means we can have more intentional conversations with participants and build even stronger relationships, to help people access the supports and resources they need to move out of poverty.
Bissell Centre’s programs are designed to provide a holistic approach to supporting individuals and families to get out of poverty. We have increased the integration of services so that participants can more easily access employment, housing, and financial supports.
The reduced hours for drop-in services create more time for individual appointments providing intentional support for moving people out of poverty. Non “drop-in” hours will be used for appointments and program-based supports.
Working together to keep our Community Space open
Life under the threat of COVID-19 is challenging for everyone. Bissell Centre remains fully committed to meeting the needs of participants while working with government and local partners to find alternate solutions so we can continue to ensure safety for everyone in our community now and in the future.
Finding mental health supports at Bissell and a sense of community, drastically changed Melanie’s life.
On any given day you can find Melanie busy in Bissell’s Community Kitchen or visiting with friends or laughing and supporting others. She helps out with holiday meals, delivering plates to the elders with mobility issues or filling cups with juice or coffee. She enjoys keeping busy, it helps her stay out of trouble. “Lord knows I can find me in some trouble,” Melanie laughed.
When Melanie and I sat down, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what she would tell me. Her story isn’t terribly unique to many of our community members but her vulnerability and willingness to open up to me, a stranger, and tell me some of her darkest moments carried some significant weight and responsibility. Needless to say, I was honoured to hold that space with and for her.
This is Melanie’s story that developed out of our conversation…
For years, Melanie lived on the streets and made a living as a drug dealer. But dealing was a dangerous job. Soon violence became part of her daily life. “I was vicious and angry all the time, always yelling and screaming, even beating people up,” Melanie says. “I didn’t know I needed help with mental health back then.”
When risky behaviour got her banned from other agencies, she found herself hungry and ready for change. Bissell Centre had offered her help before, so she headed there, hoping for a hot meal and a fresh start.
“When she arrived, a staff member named Martin greeted her at the door and asked, “Are you ready to change your life today?”
This was the moment, she believes saved her life.
After her meal, Martin introduced Melanie to the mental health program where she met a psychiatrist for the first time.
Melanie finally received the mental health supports at Bissell that she needed. She no longer experienced an uncontrollable roller coaster of emotions. She gained control over her reactions and learned to identify the things that trigger her.
After finding mental health supports at Bissell, Melanie’s life begins to change direction.
Receiving mental health support transformed Melanie. But it was the sense of community that had the greatest impact on her life. The connections she made here tethered her to something real and helped her find the sense of family she had always wished for.
“Here, everyone is cared for and we’re treated like family no matter what.”
“The programs at Bissell Centre are so important to me. And the staff always take time out of their day to ask what’s wrong and sit down and talk to you. Here, everyone is cared for and we’re treated like family no matter what,” Melanie says.
Today, Melanie contributes to Bissell Centre by mentoring young people who lacked family support, just like she did. She helps them learn how to survive on their own and how to get help when they need it.
“Bissell helped straightened out my life,” Melanie says tearfully. “It took years, but I changed my lifestyle and have stayed off the streets for over 5 years. I’m so grateful to be alive and kicking. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead by example while working with the kids.”
This is an abridged version of what Melanie had to tell me that day. We both shared a few tears and a couple of silent moments. Her story is heavy, riddled with addictions and abuse and in many ways, this life was forced upon her. But what wasn’t forced upon her was the yearning for a better life. Melanie has good and bad days, but she doesn’t stop fighting. Not for one second.
Some people question how many chances a person should be given. Hearing Mel’s story, one might argue that she used all her chances up. But ask me that question after meeting Melanie and watching her flourish and succeed in our community? My answer is simple: As many as it takes.
– Scarlet, Communications Specialist
My name is Fred, and Bissell Centre was a godsend for me.
For many years, I was a welder. When I lost my job, I was completely blindsided. For months, I searched for a new position in my field, but there simply wasn’t work to be found. If you’ve ever lost your job, you know how devastating that experience can be. It’s hard not to take it personally.
I suspect many of you have an inkling of what I went through, spending endless hours applying for jobs, only to be turned away, or worse, not to receive any kind of response at all.
To top everything off, my marriage was on the fritz. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, no matter how hard I tried. Being part of a dying marriage was incredibly lonely.
I’d hit rock bottom once again. I found myself deeply depressed. I couldn’t stay in that house any longer. I needed space, so I left.
Leaving was important, but I had nowhere to go.
Becoming homeless in Edmonton was overwhelming and very confusing. Was I going to sleep on a park bench tonight? Would I be mugged while I slept? What’s my next step? Thankfully, I was in contact with Alberta Jobs Corps, and they referred me to Bissell Centre for help.
When I walked through Bissell Centre’s doors, I was more than a little uncertain. I didn’t know who to talk to or where to go, and I think the staff noticed that because they approached me, asked my name, and introduced themselves.
I told them a little bit about my situation, and they said, “Well Fred, you’ve come to the right place. Bissell Centre can help.”
That was about a year ago. At Bissell Centre, I’ve found the support of a family. I found people who really care. They gave me food and clothing and helped me find temporary shelter, so I wouldn’t be on the street. Before long, they helped me find affordable housing, too.
I’m a regular participant at the Community Kitchen. It’s almost always a social event. We share our life stories, where we’re going and where we’ve been.
I’ve also attended several of Bissell Centre’s holiday meals. Sometimes, when I was lonely, I came to share dinner with people who treated me well. Every time I did, I felt like I was part of a family. That’s why I’m looking forward to the Thanksgiving dinner.
I’ve come a long way since showing up at Bissell Centre’s door. Becoming homeless in Edmonton wasn’t something I ever expected. I’m now a volunteer with Bissell, so I can pay back all the good things they’ve done for me. I recently was awarded full custody of my son, and that’s been the best development of all.
Thank you for your important contributions to Bissell Centre. They’re doing great work in the community and I know that my life is heading in a new direction, all thanks to them.
Thanks to our incredible supporters, we were able to implement positive changes and saw huge successes that truly impacted the people we served this year! Here are some of our favourite moments of 2017.
1) Struggling Families Treated to More Summer Camp Experiences
Moonlight Bay Centre, our camp site 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, we offered six 4-day camps, enabling us to host 143 people, including 51 children.
2) Financial Empowerment Program Launched
In partnership with E4C and the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, Bissell launched its Financial Empowerment Services. This national program strives to improve the financial well-being of people with low incomes through education, coaching, and supports. We are seeing more people filing their taxes than ever before!
3) Bissell’s Expanded Outreach Housing Team Houses More People than Ever
Our Outreach Housing team alone helped 55 people, including 19 children, find permanent homes in October. This was a record number of people supported in a single month! To date, with the assistance of our housing services teams, approximately 345 people have been housed this year, and 318 adults, parents, and children avoided eviction with support from our Community Bridge team.
4) Neighbours Come Together to Commemorate National Indigenous Peoples Day
National Indigenous Peoples Day is held across Canada every year to celebrate and recognize the unique cultural heritage of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Peoples. Many of our friends and neighbours gathered at Bissell to enjoy singing, dancing, drumming from various indigenous backgrounds, along with stew and bannock meals, traditional arts activities, and more!
5) Renovations Commence to Improve Access to Supports
Bissell Centre has operated drop-in services for over a hundred years as a means of engaging with individuals who struggle with homelessness and poverty. We received funding to renovate our communal space in order to improve our clients’ ability to access the services they need to meet basic needs, obtain critical supports, develop skills, and build relationships. We’re excited to implement our service model and take another step toward eliminating poverty in our community.
6) Bissell Introduces FASD Medic Alert Bracelets
In October, our Fetal Alcohol Spectrum of Services team launched MedicAlert’s pilot FASD bracelet program at Bissell. The program aims to achieve more equitable treatment for persons living with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder by raising awareness among emergency first responders on how to approach these individuals as identified through their MedicAlert ID.
7) Bissell Donors and Volunteers Bring Joy to People in Need During the Festive Season
Five hundred and ninety three Bissell Elf volunteers helped make this Christmas season especially warm and friendly! Two hundred and fifty heaping plates of turkey, vegetables, stuffing, and salad were served at our Christmas meal, 143 families received gifts through our Festive Giveaway event, and 228 people helped wrap gifts to raise funds for Bissell’s programs and services during our Gift Wrap for Bissell events. Thank you to each and every person who helped bring comfort and joy to the people who lean on Bissell Centre for support over the holidays!
As we look back on 2017, we are reminded that the work that we do at Bissell Centre would never be possible without your support.
THANK YOU, from the bottom of our hearts!
Help create more memories like these by joining our family of supporters today. Make a donation.
I am excited to announce that renovations to our downtown facility are underway with a grand re-opening scheduled for February 2018.
Our newly, upgraded space will enable more people to connect with the essential resources they need to break free from the cycle of poverty and find hope for the future.
Our team is ecstatic to be able to take this important step further towards our vision of eliminating poverty in our community.
In 2014, we conducted a major review of our Drop-in Centre with the intention of improving and expanding our services to those who come to us for assistance. The report revealed that we needed to re-imagine our space to better connect participants with the support services they need and to adopt a new service delivery model that further aligns to our vision and mission.
This means that people can, not only access the basic items they need like clothing and showers, but also be connected to other services that allow them to move out of poverty and achieve prosperity in their lives.
I can’t wait for the larger space. It will be easier for me to use the showers, bathrooms, and laundry. It’s going to be good! – Sam, Bissell Centre Participant.
The new centre will significantly improve people’s ability to access housing supports, employment opportunities, skills training, and vital programs and services.
I’m also happy to inform you that we are partnering with The Mustard Seed as they have graciously freed up space so that our team can continue to offer drop in services in their facility during the renovations.
For approximately 14 weeks we will continue to provide daily meals, hygiene and clothing items, and recreation programming there while we renovate the interior of our building. Our Employment Services and Casual Labour will remain operating out of Bissell Centre’s facilities.
To learn more, please check out our Renovations Plan.
We look forward to updating you as the project develops.
Gary St. Amand
CEO, Bissell Centre
Haircuts are a luxury that many people in our community can’t afford. That’s why we’ve offered a free haircutting service for over 26 years at Bissell’s Drop-in Centre. Every Tuesday, participants can sign up to receive free haircuts and beard trimmings thanks to a group of volunteers who keep the program running.
Some clients visit the hairdresser to get themselves cleaned up before a job interview or housing appointment, but Diane, a long-term hairdressing volunteer, says participants request haircuts for all kinds of reasons. “One fellow came in with long, long hair and a big beard,” she recalls. “He told us, ‘Take it all off!'” She explained that the client hadn’t seen his daughter in two and a half years and that he wanted to “look nice” for her high school graduation tomorrow.
Diane has been cutting hair at Bissell Centre for over six years. “When I don’t come, I miss the people in the Drop-in Centre,” she says. “We know a lot of them. When we walk through the Drop-in, they’re always stopping us and talking to us. It’s like a family.” Diane says that her clients always appreciate the work that she does. “They come in and a lot of them don’t feel that good about themselves. But once they have a nice haircut, and they’ve spent a little bit of time talking with the ladies – when you show them their face in the mirror, it’s the difference between night and day. Their eyes have life.”
With a few volunteers moving away and a few others retiring soon, Diane hopes that some fresh faces will start to come by the haircutting centre. “Come and see,” she urges anyone thinking about volunteering. “Spend time with us! Come here and just take a look at what’s going on – take a look at the smiles and the happy faces that go out of here. You’re not making any kind of commitment if you just come by and visit.”
As for Diane, she knows that she’ll continue to cut hair for her clients at Bissell Centre for as long as she is able. “It makes me feel good,” she says, “knowing that I’ve in some way helped somebody feel a lot better about themselves. More people should try and volunteer.”
We’re recruiting haircutting volunteers!
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…
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. Read More…
By Guest Blogger, Karen Lee
James, a regular in Bissell Centre’s Drop-In, tells me that he is grateful for places like Bissell. For the past three months, he has been homeless. At night he sleeps in shelters, but he doesn’t like it. He has multiple health problems, including epilepsy and is prone to seizures, for which he needs to take medication, but he isn’t allowed to take them in the shelters. In addition to having three major seizures in the last year, James is also diabetic and has high blood pressure. And if you can believe it, he has problems with his eyesight also… he has double vision.
James is scared and emotionally distraught. He doesn’t feel safe in the inner city. He has seen numerous acts of violence and an act of suicide on the streets. He feels he has no support outside of Bissell. He lost contact with his friends and family and feels alone and hopeless.
James, like many homeless people, has been coming to Bissell daily for meals and a warm safe place to stay during the day. Today he feels especially thankful – he is able to get his laundry done and was given a change of clothes and can finally get out of the ones he’s been walking around in for the last few weeks.
As my conversation with him comes to an end, he has tears in his eyes and starts weeping. I tell him that his days ahead will get better. And I really do hope that’s the case.