This week, we honour our volunteers who assist people who are struggling with poverty in Edmonton. In conjunction with National Volunteer Week, we have planned activities at Bissell Centre to recognize their valuable contribution to the inner-city community.
Each year, our 1,100 dedicated volunteers give more than 11,000 hours serving meals for the hungry, leading activities for children from low-income families, sorting numerous donations, and providing administrative support. We are continually inspired by their compassion and commitment!
Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter pages for stories and photos about our dedicated volunteers.
Interested in Volunteering?
To help make a difference for people in our community, please visit our Volunteer Services page and sign up through our online application program to tailor your volunteer experience with us!
We are excited to announce the appointment of Gary St. Amand as the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bissell Centre. Gary was appointed Interim CEO after the resignation of Mark Holmgren in November 2015.
“Gary St. Amand is a dynamic and thoughtful leader in Edmonton’s social sector and he has the full support of our organization,” states Ken Ristau, PhD, Board Chair of Bissell Centre. “The Board is confident that Gary will continue to work with our supporters and all Edmontonians to meet the challenge of our vision to eliminate poverty in our community.”
“Bissell Centre has a long history of compassionate and empowering support for families and individuals living in the grips of poverty. During my time here, I have gained a deep respect for the strong tradition Bissell Centre has as a place of safety and support, while also exploring innovative ways to eliminate poverty,” says Gary.
Gary’s strong leadership as Chief Programs Officer of Bissell Centre for the past three years has been integral to the growth and strength of the organization and its mission to empower people to move from poverty to prosperity. Gary is also a member of the City of Edmonton’s EndPoverty Task Force Implementation Committee with a vision to eliminate poverty in the city within a generation.
During the past four months, five local artists brought their talents into our Drop-in Centre, and led our community members through a variety of creative art workshops. With the help of our steadfast volunteers and practicum students, these generous artists-in-residence provided an opportunity for participants to express themselves through both new and familiar mediums. This endeavour, made possible through the generousity of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, left a lasting and positive impression on everyone involved.
In October, participants used paint-pouring techniques reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Artists poured, dripped, and stained un-primed canvases that had been placed on the floor. They were invited to “feel” their compositions as they layered the colours together.
The following month, participants were invited to try silk-screen printing; the art of creating multiples. For some of the “students”, the repetitive nature of this medium was therapeutic and calming.
With December came Relief Printing. This involved carving images into Styrofoam or Lino then transferring the images onto paper or fabric.
In January, participants enjoyed embroidery on Wednesdays. The needle work was popular with all — older and younger, men and women! On Saturdays they discovered the art of making traditional Indigenous rattles and fans, eager to learn about their ceremonial significance.
Over the months, a genuine camaraderie developed among those who took part. This was made evident through the increasing number of positive and encouraging comments about one another’s pieces. One artist noted:
Bissell Centre believes that working alongside one another builds community, breaks down barriers, and fosters inclusion and respect. This Creative Art Program reinforced this belief.
Most of the community members who attended the workshops donated their work to Bissell Centre. Most do not have a place to call home, and no place to showcase it. If you would like to see more of their work, some of it can be seen in our reception area. We hope to display more soon. It is an honour to share their art created here at Bissell.
Thank you to the artists who shared their time and talents with our community: Debra Rusler, Leanne Olson, Brittney Roy, Devon Beggs, Carolyn Wagner
Creativity knows no bounds, but arts supplies and equipment are frequently too expensive for people living in poverty. It was a delight to bring paint, brushes, textiles, a printing press, and more into the Drop-in! Our community members truly appreciated the opportunity!
When I look back over the long history that Bissell Centre has in supporting vulnerable citizens in the City of Edmonton, I am honoured and grateful for the opportunity to stand together with many, many other leaders, staff members, donors, and volunteers who have contributed to making a difference in their community and changing lives for over a century.
Over the past three years, I have had the great privilege of working closely with our former CEO Mark Holmgren. Bissell Centre experienced tremendous growth during Mark’s time with us and I am thankful for the opportunity that I had to learn from Mark and be part of the innovative initiatives that he led us through during his time with us.
As one person commented to me, those are big shoes to fill – figuratively and literally!
Humour aside, this is a true statement but I am able to move forward with confidence not only because of my own leadership experience and successes, but fundamentally and more importantly, because we have an incredibly talented team of staff and volunteers who are passionate about ending poverty in our community. It is they who truly make Bissell Centre the amazing organization that it is.
Who I Am
I came to Bissell Centre having worked for most of my career in non-profit agencies that were committed to supporting families and individuals realize their hopes and aspirations. Over those many years in leadership roles, I began to form and understand which values were important to me personally and professionally. As I learned more about Bissell Centre, it did not take me long to realize that my core values were closely aligned with the organization’s.
Respect, diversity, inclusion, integrity, compassion – these are the things that define what an organization is, rather than what it does. At Bissell Centre, it became clear to me that these values are not simply words on a webpage; they are characteristics that we seek to live out on a daily basis regardless of our role.
Personally, I am as concerned about who I am, and not just with what I do. To put it differently, who we are on the journey is as important as the end we are moving towards. As a father of three, I am reminded of the importance of this daily, as my children pick up my values (and at times my bad habits!), from seeing how I approach life on a day to day basis. Staying true to our values can be hard work, but in the end, the effort is worth it.
The Harsh Reality
As I think of my own children, I cannot help but reflect on the many children who are faced daily with the harsh realities of poverty here in Edmonton. I still find myself shocked at the significant numbers of families and children who find themselves lacking their fundamental needs. Consider this quote from End Poverty Edmonton:
This was data from 2012, before the recent slide of oil prices and the resulting economic challenges for many in our community. I am afraid to think of what those numbers would be today!
This sobering reality presents a significant challenge to all of us. But it also provides an opportunity. It is in this moment, perhaps more than any other, that we need to join together and come alongside our neighbours, our friends, and family members to join in the long history of those who have taken action to make a difference and bring hope of a brighter future.
This is why I am working with our team here at Bissell Centre to expand the services that we provide to families and children. It is why we are seeking to expand our Community Bridge Program, which helps prevent evictions for families and individuals.
Our Bold Vision
A number of years ago, Bissell Centre adopted a bold new vision, the elimination of poverty in our community. This was at a time when conversations were focused on the reduction or management of poverty. The idea of ending poverty seemed ludicrous to some – the problem was too big, too complex. Some have said it cannot be done. But this also what many told the Wright Brothers about building an airplane.
To believe that poverty is a foregone conclusion is to give up on what might be and preclude us from taking concrete actions that might actually bring the seemingly impossible closer to reality. How many iterations of the filament did Edison have to attempt before he was successful at creating an effective working lightbulb? Where would we be today if he hadn’t been driven by a deep belief that creating an electrical light was in fact possible? Doing something great is never easy. By definition, a great accomplishment is only great because it was so difficult.
In order for us to make the impossible possible, we need to begin with the belief that we can make a difference, we can succeed, and then we need to take concrete steps towards that end. Whether they are big or small, all of those steps joined together begin to form a movement, a wave of support and engagement that can change the tide and make the impossible possible.
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.
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
I am taking my drive to end poverty and homelessness to a National level by accepting the opportunity to lead the Vibrant Communities initiative for the Tamarack Institute. This initiative entails working with 100 cities across Canada on poverty reduction initiatives. For more information about my new work, visit HERE.
I was not looking for another job. This opportunity was presented to me. Unfortunately to pursue it I have had to resign as the CEO of Bissell Centre. I have to tell you that this was the most difficult career decision I have made.
I am proud of what Bissell Centre has accomplished under my leadership but truth be told, all of the good things that have happened over the past five years are because of the incredible spirit and hard work of our staff, volunteers, and board members. It is our people that drive us to help those who are often forgotten or, worse, viewed as problems (rather than as human beings).
Over the past five years the Bissell Centre has grown its services to end poverty and homelessness. In achieving this we have put people to work, supported those who are mentally-ill, victims of crime, suffering from trauma and who need help to change their lives for the better.
There is a saying we have about our organization which is: we don’t give up on people. That’s our stance, that’s our attitude about our work and it’s our people who deliver on that each and every day, and I have to say I have been proud and blessed to be a part of such a fine group of caring people.
Because of our people, we now have a goal to house 500 homeless people per year. Five years ago, our goal was 80 per year. In addition in the past 12 months we have prevented the eviction of another 300 people – half of whom were children.
Because of our people, we provide 14,000 job placements per year. Five years ago it was less than 10,000 and we have developed plans to dramatically increase that work in 2016.
Because of our people, Bissell Centre has set a course to transform its drop in centre into a larger centre for healing, reconciliation, and change which will allow us to not only provide sanctuary from the street but also work with street-involved people in ways that help them increase their literacy skills, find jobs, address mental health challenges, and become productive members of the community.
It’s our people who take care of thousands of children each year in our free, accredited day care centre, providing them with meals, early childhood learning opportunities, and most of all love.
It’s our people who weathered not one but two devastating Thrift Shoppe fires and who ensured that even while we were closed, we were able to provide free clothing to those who needed it.
There is so much more I could mention, but I want to make sure all of you realize that Bissell Centre is not about the leader, is not about one person. Bissell Centre is about the 130 people who come to work each day to be of service and who are committed to making positive change in our participants’ lives.
I can tell you I have been attentive to surrounding myself with stellar leaders and managers as well. From day one, I knew there would come a day when I would leave Bissell Centre and frankly I wanted to make sure the agency didn’t skip a beat when I stepped down. I am confident that I have been successful. Gary St. Amand who is in charge of all of our programs (and has been for three years) has agreed to serve as Interim CEO and to work with board and staff to execute our business plan. He will do a stand up job and will receive the support of his leadership team along the way.
Sometimes when a CEO steps down, people wonder what it will mean. They wonder sometimes if the agency will have a hard time. While I want to think I will be missed at least a little, the truth is that the work will continue to the same standards of quality tomorrow as today.
I will continue to be a leadership donor to Bissell Centre, and I ask that all of you who currently support us or who have been thinking of doing so, to not hesitate because of my departure. I have every confidence that things will only continue to get better. Bissell Centre will continue on its journey to do more and do what we do better. That’s what Bissell Centre is about.
Allison and Don were chronically homeless until this past August, struggling to survive through Edmonton’s cold winters for over three years. Don was trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and homelessness. Allison’s move to Edmonton from the Northwest Territories resulted in instability, with no supports to help her transition into urban living. Together, they braved the difficulties of street life where there was limited help to manage addictions, find work, and build positive relationships with people who could steer them in a healthier direction.
Today, with the help of Bissell Centre’s Outreach Housing Team and follow-up support from their Homeless to Homes (H2H) program, Allison and Don are safely housed and on the path to healing.
The couple sought help after their third winter outside, when Allison says both she and Don started to get really sick, the frigid air making them constantly ill when they were forced to sleep outside.
“I’m overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t believe that I have a home.”
“When you are caught up in your addictions and you’re homeless, it’s a hard trend to get out of. It’s very difficult.” Don says. “You have to look for support. You have to strive forward instead of backward. I’d been going backwards for so long that I forgot what forward was.”
At the time of our interview, the couple had been in their new home for only five days. Don admits that he’s still shocked by how quickly they got help: “I’m overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t believe that I have a home.”
They are excited to be building a stronger, brighter future. Don is working towards coping with his addictions while Allison is preparing to go back to work. Their relationship, they say, is stronger than it’s ever been. But it’s difficult to think about their friends who are still on the street; Don notes that there are many more who are worse off than he and Allison were but that he is thankful he got a second chance.
“I’m thankful for Bissell for helping me out and people pointing us in the right direction. Here I am today, I’ve got a home and I’m thankful and grateful.”
Alison and Don’s story is from our Winter Newsletter, which is now available to download.
Thanks to you, our generous supporters and dedicated volunteers, we served over 300 of our participants a Traditional Turkey meal this Thanksgiving.
As you know, our priority is to eliminate poverty in our community, and we hope to one day have no hungry mouths to feed. But the reality is, many people are struggling.
There are folks in our community that are at rock bottom. They’ve exhausted their best efforts to rise above life’s relenting hurdles. But it’s in this place where significant change can happen, where up is the only direction left to go. A meal served with care, a smile sincerely shared, a conversation grounded in trust and respect can be the stepping stones needed to regain one’s footing to find a new balance and momentum.
We recently shared with you the story of Tamara and Arliss, who were homeless and relying on on our Drop-in Centre last Thanksgiving. Today, they are in a home of their own. You, our supporters, helped make that happen.
Together, we can continue helping people step up out of poverty and homelessness, and sometimes it will all start with turkey and a slice of pie.
To those who donated turkeys, thank you. To those who donate to support our Drop-in Centre, thank you. To those who took extra time out of your busy lives to serve, thank you!