Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Kraft Dinner, Hope, and Stories that Change Lives - the KD Gala and the Centre of Hope

Two years ago I went to an event that changed my heart forever. Two years ago I heard a story that set me on a different path, and that reminded me that every person has a story, and every story deserves to be heard. And two years ago on a cold and snowy November night in Fort McMurray I sat in my car and cried, because I heard a story that I have carried with me every single day since then, one that has haunted me and has become a soft rhythm in the background of my life, because it has led to so many other stories, and so very many questions. Last night I heard another story, and last night I attended an annual event that manages every single year to centre me and remind me of some very poignant realities. Last night I attended the KD Gala for the Centre of Hope.

I have written a great deal about the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop-in program for the homeless in our community. I have written about the people who work there, and the individuals who spend their days in the warmth and safety of that little building on Franklin, that building that is no longer blue but that will always be the little blue building in my heart. And even when I am not writing about the Centre of Hope and their patrons I am thinking about them, even when I am talking about our community with great minds of our time like Malcolm Gladwell, who posed a question to me about who this community wants to be  - Dubai, with their enormous resource wealth and Gucci stores and palaces and abject poverty and stark economic divisions, or Norway, with their tremendous resource wealth and strong social justice and determination that every person will have their basic needs met. The Centre of Hope is one of those places that has become a ribbon that ties together the pieces of my life, and it has over the last two years become a place that centres me when I find myself off-balance. It, and the patrons, have become my touchstone with reality.

Last night I dined again in the basement of the Fellowship Baptist Church, a place that during the week serves hundreds of our homeless and near-homeless and poverty-stricken through the Soup Kitchen. I took the Intrepid Junior Blogger with me as she too has heard my stories about the Centre of Hope and about those who share our community who struggle, and she too is developing a keen interest in social justice. We sat last  night and we ate dishes all based on Kraft Dinner, the staple diet item of the financially challenged everywhere, and we listened as Phil Meagher entertained the audience as he always does. It is a different kind of gala, this one, no flowing gowns and fancy suits but rather a complete focus on the organization with a side serving of humble foods, and even humbler hearts.

Last night I watched as the IJB took in a world that I have become so close to in the last two years. I watched as she viewed a video on the impact the Centre has on our local homeless population (a video wonderfully made by our friend Ashley), and I watched as she listened to the story from a young woman named Chrystal, who got up on that stage and shared her story of addiction, and how the Centre of Hope gave her her life back. I saw the light shining in the IJB's eyes, and I knew she too was seeing the harsh reality of this community, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots can be stark and cruel.

Chrystal was so brave to tell her story, as I know the courage it takes to stand on a stage and strip away all pretence and bare your soul. I know the courage it takes to tell a story that is raw and painful, but I also know that those stories can liberate you, and they can change the lives of others. I know this because I have told such a story once on a stage, and doing so freed me in a way I had not expected. And I know they can change you because the stories I have heard from those at the Centre of Hope have changed my life, from the story of a young man named Adam to the story of a young woman who ended her life in a dumpster.

Yes, that last story is the one I heard two years ago, told by her partner who left her one cold morning in the dumpster where they had spent the night to protect themselves from the harsh winds and cold. He had gone to get coffee, and when he came back the dumpster was empty, and gone with the contents of the dumpster was the woman he loved. It is believed her life ended in the landfill of this community, her heart stopping its rhythm as she met her end surrounded by the things we throw away. And that story, one that brings me to tears every single damn time I think of it, changed my life forever because none of us, from the wealthiest to the poorest, are trash. None of us should end our lives in a dumpster. None of us should be forced to spend our days and nights living in tents on the Snye when it is 40 below, or huddled in heaps on street corners. None of us, in this community of incredible wealth, with one of the highest average incomes in the country, should be forgotten. The question that rings in my head is: who do we want to be - Dubai, or Norway?

I sit here this morning as the fresh snow swirls behind me, just glimpsed through the glass of the windows of my safe and warm house. I think, though, of all those who are sleeping rough today, and who will do so again tonight. I think about how they struggle in this community, often stripped of dignity and respect and treated, if we are to be entirely honest, like trash. I think about how no human life should be thrown away, and about how we need to ensure that homelessness does not become hopelessness. I think about the nights I have spent at Hope in the Dark, the event where people like me and the IJB can sleep outdoors in a park for a night in a cardboard box, and learn a bit about the nature of being homeless. I think about young women like Chrystal, now sober for 4 and one half months, and how she must count every day of sobriety as a victory. I think about the words I shared with her, telling her I recognized her courage for telling her story, and thanking her for doing so, and seeing the tears in those beautiful, intelligent, and older-than-their-years young eyes. I thought about the times I have visited the Centre of Hope and listened to the stories, ones again shared with me so bravely and so freely, and I think simply because like all other people they just want someone to hear their story, and care enough to listen to it. I thought about the last two KD Galas I have attended, and how this event, stripped of all the glitz and glamour of the other local galas, has become my favourite every single year, the one where I find my heart and soul being centred, and where I rediscover the meaning of hope. And, in the end, I thought about a young woman who ended her life in a dumpster, and how that story is one that I will fight to never see repeated in this community because I don't think my heart could stand it, and because no one, no person regardless of who they are, is trash.

I could say the Centre of Hope does "good work" or that they are an "essential service" but to me that seems trite and frankly diminishes what they do. What the Centre of Hope does is offer those who are the most vulnerable, those who are the most likely to fall through the cracks, those who suffer from addictions or mental illness, those who have resorted to crime or prostitution to simply survive, hope and refuge from a world that is harsh and cold and far too often cruel to the vulnerable. The Centre of Hope gives them a place to wash their clothes, an address where they can receive their mail, clean socks, a place where they can see a nurse to attend to their medical needs, a place where they can take a shower and feel cleansed, and most of all a place where they are valued, respected, and shown hope. What the Centre of Hope does is heal souls, and hearts, and takes those who may have lost all hope or are at tremendous risk of giving up and shows them that homelessness doesn't have to be hopelessness, and that there is a path out of the dark and into the light. The staff there do so with compassion and with love, because without love one could not do the job they do every day, I think.

This morning I sit here with my coffee cup and this laptop, and as I watch the snowflakes swirl in the air my head swirls with thoughts that words can't quite express. What they all come down to though, is gratitude for places like the Centre of Hope, and an intense belief in what they do. What it all comes down to for me is ensuring that no life in our community ever ends in a dumpster again, and how last night I saw one young woman who was saved while two years ago I heard the story of one young woman who was lost, and the fine line that divides them, and me, and all of us. I find myself thinking about the future, one in which the Centre of Hope will need to grow because it has become too small, and how that both makes me happy in that they will have the capacity and support to grow, and how that troubles me because it makes me feel we are on the wrong path, the one Gladwell warned me about, the one leading us into a society of divisions of wealth and harsh realities like increased homelessness.

I sit here this morning and reflect, and feel so very many mixed emotions. The one I keep coming back to, though, is hope and how hope is something we create. Hope is something we can share, and something we can offer that has the tremendous power to change lives and minds and hearts. Hope is something far too often lacking, but that I have found time and time again in a little no-longer-blue building on Franklin Avenue. I think about all those homeless individuals I have met over the last two years - the aboriginal lady who called me her friend, and told me she loved me, and the young man who spent time in prison and told me he was turning his life around because people in this community gave him hope. I wondered where they are today as the snow falls, and I open my heart wide and send them hope and love, because that is something we all need, and not just on cold days when the snowflakes begin to appear. I am so grateful to have attended the annual KD Gala, but even more I am grateful for the United Way and all they do in this community, and for groups like the Centre of Hope, who take an intangible thing like hope and turn it into hot showers, warm socks, and a safe place to spend the day off the streets. I could say I thank them for all they do for this community, but thanks isn't enough. I love them for all they do, and for giving hope to those who cannot find it, for giving light to those who are in the dark, and for never giving up on those that others may treat like trash. The Centre of Hope isn't really just about hope, you see - it is really the Centre of Love, the Centre of Compassion, and the Centre of Humanity - and I am so profoundly grateful for their presence.

I will stop now, because my eyes are once again clouded in tears, and I can write no more as I think about a young woman in a dumpster, and how our community failed her. All I know is this - what happened to her can never happen again, because it will be our indictment, and the condemnation of our society as a failure to protect those who are most vulnerable. Her life was precious and rare and valuable and unique, just as every single life is. Places like the Centre of Hope and those who work and volunteer there understand this - and just as they have hope I too have hope that all the others in this community understand this too, and realize just how fragile and precarious our lives can be. We have a responsibility to each other, and to hope - because in the end the only hope we have is that which we create and offer to each other.

My tremendous thanks to
the Centre of Hope
for everything they do every single day,
to Chrystal
for braving sharing her story,
to the United Way
for their support of
the organizations in this community,
and to everyone in this community
who believes in -
and offers -

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