The Alex Youth Health Centre. This organization had a profound impact on our Calgary ALSO group as it was the only agency we visited that worked with youth.
Ivan, on quality control duty, makes sure that lunch is ready to serve to clients at the Mustard Seed shelter.
Upon reflection, everyone in our group agreed that a favourite part of our trip was the way we ate our suppers. Every evening we prepared a meal and sat around the table family style. We found that conversation flowed freely in this context, and most nights we sat together visiting for several hours. These conversations featured input from each person and topics included issues related to homelessness and poverty, theological insights, personal anecdotes, jokes, and reflections. This collaborative style of speaking, listening and learning proved an incredible place to unpack the ALSO experience.
In an effort to share this with our fellow students, parents, and school community, we have decided to take a different approach to blogging tonight. Every student in our group will write a short excerpt highlighting a moment from the week that surprised them, challenged them, or when they saw God at work in a person or agency we visited.
This week was an eye-opening experience for me, as it was the first time I was able to catch a glimpse of just how much difficulty some people face to simply survive. Even though I've lived in cities all my life, I have never truly experienced the hardships that come along with poverty and homelessness. After this week of service, learning, and slowly beginning to understand, my views of the city and city life have been changed forever. Not only that, this week I have learned the importance of treating others with the respect that they deserve, and understanding that everyone has a story to tell.
One organization that really caught my attention was the Calgary Urban Project Society, or CUPS, which was different from the others as they focused on acting instead of reacting. While other organizations, such as the Drop-In Centre and the Mustard Seed, address urgent needs such as food and shelter, CUPS goes a step further and explores root causes of homelessness, poverty, and how changes in peoples' lives put them in these situations. The presentation we were given at CUPS reflected both the corporate and the personal side of the organization, and how they were able to provide services related to physical health, mental health, post and pre-natal care, addictions counselling, family wellness, and many others that we did not have time to dive into. Even though there were over 45 free resources for their clients, they all broadly fell under the category of Health, Education, and Housing, which were the three aspects of life CUPS found most important to find stability. This corporation resonated with me, as it worked hard to find sustainable, long-term solutions to their problems, while at the same time be willing to cooperate with other organizations to address all aspects of homelessness together as a society, to serve others in the way that they needed, not in the way that the organizations deemed fit.
For this year's ALSO trip, I have the privilege to revisit the bustling city of Calgary. Some buildings and programs were similar but the experience was completely different and I am amazed by the things I have learned and the opportunities I have been given. After spending so much time learning about different agencies and what they do to help the homeless, the thing that stands out to me is the way all of the workers and volunteers we met shared a similar perspective and passion for their work. Everyone at agencies like the Drop In Centre or the Mustard Seed or other places cares so much about the well being of the homeless people. It is hard to put into words how compassionate and caring these individuals are with marginalized and vulnerable people. Without them, homelessness would be a much greater issue. The amount of time they have invested into these people's lives are incredible and they do it even though there might not produce any results. I see these people as a piece of a puzzle; each of these people is necessary to creating a picture of a more just and peaceful society. This is where our role comes in. I will take away the fact that it is necessary to model this kind of compassion, found in these people and the example of Jesus, and offer myself as a piece in this broader picture.
During this ALSO trip I pretty much enjoyed the whole trip, although one thing I didn't like about this trip is we have to wake up so early, because I love sleeping so much. One surprising event that I will remember even after this trip is what happened during at the Community Cupboard, a food bank at the Abbeydale church. I was assigned to be a friendly face to the people who needed food. A lady and her son walked pass me and I asked about their day and how many family members are in her family. She told me her family was made up of only her son and herself because the father ran away with another woman . It was hard for me to hear and I didn't know what to say! It was awkward, so I decided to talk about her job to break this super awkward moment. After I finished the conversation with them, I started to regret bringing up this topic until I realized that next time, if I got in this kinda situation, I could say "Don't worry, you can find a better man than him!". This trip really helped me know more about homelessness and how AB government help those people that what they need .
On Wednesday a group of us went to The Alex Youth Health Centre where we met Kate, a case worker, who gave us a tour of the place. Kate told us all about what they do there and how they help youth. Within 5 minutes of her explaining all they do there I knew that that's where I can see myself working in the future. For the longest time I've wanted to work with teens who have mental health problems and abuse drugs or alcohol, but I never really had a specific place where I wanted to work until I heard about The Alex. I even sent my mom saying I found a place where I'd love to work in the future. The Alex was the only place we visited that focused just on teens and they had so many incredible resources to help get youth to a better place in their lives and help them feel like themselves again. They don't pressure them to change things in their life, they help them be safe and educated, and when they are ready to change things the staff there are supportive. I can definitely see myself moving to Calgary and working at The Alex when I am finished university.
A part of our ALSO trip that really sticks out to me is the "CASA Challenge". It had me and two other students wandering the streets of downtown Calgary together, approaching total strangers and asking them various questions concerning homelessness and poverty in the city. For the entire time preceding the "challenge", we had been exercising critical thinking in regards to the causes of homelessness, and so my own psyche was very distant from identifying with the stereotypes usually associated with it. Thus, once we began questioning people, it felt quite strange, ludicrous actually, that people responded by spewing out the very stereotypes I'd been looking so far beyond. For the past couple days, they hadn't even entered my mind other than as something to be scoffed at. And here these people were, totally believing them. I guess that's the thing with stereotypes- they're widely believed.
I certainly wasn't angry, or even surprised, but it was definitely a very bizarre feeling, hearing what people had to say about homelessness. It was almost like they were speaking a different language, one which I myself had forgotten how to speak . There's the urge to just say, "What are you, a moron?!", but of course, a person isn't a moron just because they don't know better. They're not trying to be mean to homeless people by saying that they're lazy-- it's simply what they believe. We did encounter some people who had thought about it on a deeper level, but on the whole, there's a striking lack of real knowledge regarding the topic. And it was much more impactful to see this firsthand than it was to just hear people say "there's a lot of stigma".
I've always thought I knew a fair bit about poverty and homelessness before this trip, and I never thought I would learn as much as I did during this week! I have always been around people without homes on the streets of Toronto, but being in Calgary and visiting these organizations really brought it into perspective for me. Statistics and facts are everywhere, but being there and coming face-to-face with these individuals and their struggles was a truly profound and mind-opening experience. I have been able to find God in the least expected places, and see the value and gifts of these people. Even more, I learned a valuable lesson about how to meet these people with compassion and plant small seeds of change in their lives and in the community surrounding them.
I often feel God's presence in my life, but up until this past week I have never really considered how God could be present in others. It makes sense now; we are all created in God's image, all connected by a love beyond our capability. I have opened myself recently to this idea and pushed myself to look for God's presence and love in those around me. Three people have especially stood out for me this past week.
The first person who stood out for me was a mentally handicapped man at the Salvation Army men's shelter. He wandered around while we cleaned, talking to himself. We were sitting near him during lunch, and he sat by himself and continued his dialogue. He seemed to be addressing a team of people, giving them instructions and drawing elaborate plans and formulas in the air, leading and directing them in important business. He gave a huge smile and a thumbs-up to everyone he saw, and nothing seemed to bother or upset him. I saw someone who seemed perfectly content, and boosted everyone's mood around him. I saw innocence as well, as though he was caught in a child-like ignorance of the world around him, and he existed only to enjoy the present. Jesus always had a tender spot for the children, and he tells us "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth".
The second place I saw God was in a young man on the bus as we were heading back for the night. I overheard him tell another woman "I'm tired of asking people for sh*t, you know?". I didn't catch much after that, except his final statement: "I just wish I had the power to give". He had a daughter who needed a pencil for school, and all he wanted was to be the one making the school kits for others. I saw God simply speaking and teaching through him, and I was reminded of how much we take our wealth for granted; how seldom we are grateful for all that we have.
The third person was an older man at the Mustard Seed's transitional housing building. We were waiting for the elevator, and he was waiting as well. I glanced over at him, and smiled politely. He returned mine with a smile that was incredibly kind and tender. There was love and warmth in his expression, and it humbled me. I felt a wave of compassion and gratitude, and in that moment I felt perfectly contented. It happened in an instant, and the next second we were getting on the elevator. Afterward, I felt a deep sadness and a kind of remorse for this man, though I did not know his story. I kept trying to picture him in my mind, and the only thing that I was able to see was this kind eyed man lifting his granddaughter up in the air, laughing, while his family asked him about his day and shared a thanksgiving dinner with their father. I pictured a child climbing onto his lap and curling up in his arms. He reads the child a bedtime story and rocks them to sleep. He teaches the child how to build a birdhouse and fish in the creek. I thought about my child someday, and knew that this was the kind of man I would want in their life. In a single moment I was able to see God's unconditional love in someone I had never met before and will likely never see again.
The last thing that drove everything home for me was something I saw at every place we visited, and that was the care with which we served these people. One of the staff we worked with at the Salvation Army warehouse told us that the gifts we give others shows them how much we value them. We threw away any imperfect clothing because the children receiving those clothes were worth more than a stained onesie: they are worth a perfect onesie. The Drop-In center served a hot breakfast because all 900 of those individuals deserve a warm start to their day. The Mustard Seed transitional apartments were clean and new, in a building that had cost $65 million to build. These organizations were all sending a strong and unmistakeable message: these people are more than worthy of these spaces and meals. That dirty, handicapped, smelly beggar is worth more than that life. They are valued the same as you are in God's eyes, and they are loved.
This collection of stories, written by students in our group, are a small glimpse of the depth of conversation and reflection that we have grown accustomed to during our Calgary ALSO experience. We are grateful for the chance to learn in this unforgettable way and look forward to returning home and sharing our new perspectives and experiences around the tables in the RJC dining hall.