I have a story I'd like to share, people, so I hope you'll indulge me for a moment. When I was in my very early 20's I lived in Toronto, and I worked in a small business in an area of the city called Cabbagetown. Cabbagetown was a neighbourhood on the cusp of change - it was, as they say, becoming "gentrified", boarding houses giving way to renovated upscale homes. The area, though, had long been the haven of transients, those with substance abuse issues, and the homeless. This element still existed, and I encountered it daily.
Often I would arrive at work and find myself sweeping drug use detritus away from the doorstep of our office. And often I would arrive to find the doorway blocked by a homeless person sleeping in front of it, seeking what little bit of shelter they could find under our roof line. I would often have to shake them awake in order to open the door. I would sometimes stop next door at the little convenience store and get a cup of coffee to give to the person in front of our door, just to make my waking them a little less unkind.
One of the homeless regulars was a man I will call "J". He was a quiet sort, rarely talking, but on occasion he would stop into my office to chat a bit. One day he was more talkative than usual, and he told me that in the past he had been a professor at a local college. I suppose I didn't really believe him - other regulars had told me of pasts of being ballerinas and circus performers, and I always wondered if those pasts existed only in their minds. I listened to J, though, as he told me of his past, and when he left I didn't think much more about it.
About a month later a client came in, and commented that he had seen J on the corner. I said that J was a regular, and then the client said "It's so sad - he was one of the best professors I've ever had". I was speechless. J had been telling me the truth. He had been a professor - well liked, successful, and well off. J had developed a mental illness, and then a drug addiction. He had lost his job, his family, and his home. J had a story, and he had told me the story. I was raised to be a compassionate person, but I had always been a skeptical person, too. I had not realized how my compassion had an element of judgment about it - but I learned that day, and it was a lesson I've never forgotten. I began to see that we all have stories, and all our stories deserve to be heard - and treated with compassion, respect, and dignity.
Last night, people, I attended the Centre of Hope KD Gala. I have, as regular readers know, attended a lot of galas recently. Most have been high-end affairs, full of exotic foods and cocktails, tuxedos and gowns, champagne glasses and fancy china. Last night was different. We dined on Kraft Dinner, served on paper plates. We drank water or coffee from styrofoam cups. We ate Jello for dessert, and the clothing of choice was jeans and sweaters. And yet this gala was no less than any of the others, and in some ways it was so much more - because it is about a segment of the population in our city that is often forgotten, or, even worse, maligned.
Homelessness is an issue everywhere, but here in Fort McMurray it is perhaps even more poignant as we are a community of such wealth and opportunity. The stark contrast between homeless individuals with all their belongings in a shopping cart and those who drive all manner of high-end vehicles is startling. It is such a sharp division, and one I have often noted. It hurts my heart, people, because no one deserves to be homeless. No one, regardless of their personal burdens or choices, should lack clean socks, or sleep in a tent at -35. No one should feel their story is any less than that of another person.
The Centre of Hope is exactly what the name says. It is a centre where the homeless in this city can find not only clean socks and underwear, a cup of coffee and a snack, but hope - and help. It is a hand reached out in the hopes that another hand will grasp it, and that those two clasped hands may lead one to a better life. The Centre of Hope receives funding through the United Way, and the KD Gala is a United Way fundraiser hosted by the Centre to help it contribute to all the funding the United Way provides in our community.
The KD Gala is much like other fundraiser galas in this city, with a silent auction, and, best of all last night, a live auction by local auctioneer extraordinaire Ross Jacobs (someone I have come to respect a great deal, people, as regardless of whether the bids are starting at $25 or $1000 he puts his entire soul into the process). Money is raised and good will is engendered. The community comes together for yet another good cause, and people leave at the end of the night happy and satisfied. And yet this gala is different, too, because of the people it is intended to serve.
Last night we heard two stories from people in our community who have experienced homelessness. One of the stories, Cameron's, is recounted here in beautiful detail by Russell Thomas (someone who has been a tremendous friend to me during the course of writing this blog, and another individual who has earned my respect). I was grateful Russell wrote Cameron's story, as I tried to do so but struggled as I kept finding myself dissolving into tears. As I told my table companions last night I am a "weeper" - I have cried through several children's movies, wept while visiting historical sites all over London and Ireland, sobbed my way through several of these fundraiser galas, and, last night as Cameron told his story found I had to look away in order to avoid weeping in front of strangers yet again (yes, people, if you go somewhere and see someone with tears in their eyes it may well be me - I've been accused of many things, but never of being emotionless).
As Cameron told his story what kept resonating in my mind were two things - the first being his comment that during a lifetime when he found doors shut in his face the door at the Centre of Hope was always open to him. To me that is what hope is all about, people - finding an open door even when all other doors have been slammed shut. Cameron found this at the Centre, and I suspect he is far from alone in his experience. The second thought that kept resonating is how we ALL have a story of our lives. Sometimes it's a story of great success, or of great achievement. Sometimes it's a story of struggle and sorrow. And sometimes it's just a story that explains how we came to the place we are at today. Regardless of the nature of the story, though, all our stories deserve to be heard, and all our stories deserve respect and compassion. All of us, just like our stories, deserve respect, compassion - and dignity. This is what the people at the Centre of Hope do, people. They provide socks and underwear, coffee and snacks, counselling and assistance - and they provide respect, compassion, and dignity to those in our community who probably need it the most and receive it the least. The Centre of Hope, that humble little blue building on Franklin, doesn't just have employees, it has heroes - and angels.
When I left last night I walked to my car in the blustery wind and light snow. I thought about Cameron and his story, and about J and his story. I wondered where J is now - if he is even still alive, and if he was ever able to overcome his personal demons and find peace. I wished I could have spoken to Cameron before he left to thank him for the courage he showed in telling his story, and to tell him to keep fighting - to keep fighting because there are people in this community who are cheering him on, people he doesn't even know. People like me - and, I hope, people like you, too.
The KD Gala was a gala of a different sort, but it was, in many ways, perhaps the one that came closest to my heart. It reminded me that we all have a story, and that I have been so fortunate to not only be able to tell mine but that mine has been, in so many ways, a happy one. I was reminded that we need to find room in our community for the telling of all our stories, and that telling these stories has the power to change us - and to change our world. Through the telling of these tales we can create compassion, we can teach respect, we can find dignity, and we can address the issues that too often we wish we could avoid. I thank the Centre of Hope for the work they do every day, the United Way for providing funding so they can do it - and I thank those who told their stories last night. Your stories were heard. Your stories matter. Your stories are the stories of hope in our community - and I thank you for sharing them with me.
My sincere thanks to The Centre of Hope,
the Fort McMurray United Way,
and the Centre of Hope patrons.