Stories of Change
Our Youth Health Centre client Isaiah won the 2016 Southern Alberta Indigenous Youth Award for Volunteerism for his mentoring of other youth clients!
Our administrative offices sometimes receive surprise visitors. One day recently, Trevor came up to the Alex office, with an envelope in hand. At the top of the stairs, he met with our Administrative Support staff Karen, who greeted him warmly and asked who he was here to see.
Trevor began to describe to Karen a story of survival, a story of thriving. Eight years earlier, he had been homeless, so ensconced in a crippling drug and alcohol addiction that his health was severely jeopardized. He felt completely without hope, and saw no choices in front of him that could help redirect his life.
Then, one day, he saw The Alex Community Health Bus parked outside of the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope downtown. The bus was a block away, and Trevor had no idea how long it had been there for, or how long it would stay. He made the decision to walk towards the bus – with each slow step hoping that the bus would stay where it was, hoping that he would have enough strength to make it before it drove away. When he reached the bus, he took the three most important steps of his life, up the three small stairs that lead onto the bus. At the top of those stairs he met Dr. Randall Berlin. Trevor now reflects that this was the moment his life changed.
Now, eight years later, Trevor is clean and sober. He recently married the love of his life at the summit of a mountain.
So at the top of the steps of the Alex office, he handed Karen the envelope. Inside was a donation of $500, his way, he said, of saying thank you to Dr. Berlin and the team that helped him reclaim the life he deserved.
My name is Isaiah and I am from Siksika Nation, which is a Reservation just east of Calgary.
Growing up on the reserve was unlike any experience anyone may have had here in Calgary or in the surrounding small towns. My reserve is segregated and widely spread out across the prairie, with run-down houses and small communities that separate families from each other and resources. My experience as a young child growing up on the reserve is similar to the experiences of other youth across Canada who may have grown up on other reserves. I lived in a small house with five younger siblings and my mother who took care of us up to my early teen years, when her alcohol abuse caused her to lose us to the social service system. Alcohol addiction plagued my entire community growing up – it seemed as if every family on the reserve had at least one member that suffered from addiction. The root cause of that is a much deeper issue that stems back to before my time.
The first time I realized I was ashamed to be Aboriginal was when I decided I wanted to be nothing like my father. I would tell you about him more but I don’t want to give him the power that he doesn’t deserve, so I’m going to talk about something else. I first moved to Calgary when I was 14 years old with my siblings and my mother. We stayed on the top floor of a three bedroom duplex for about two weeks, before I started bouncing from house to house looking for stability – which was when I settled at my cousin’s home. I am proud to say that I successfully graduated high school, but in the process I fell into alcohol addiction. I was fortunate enough in my life to have people who supported me, and who pushed me to be better.
To me the Alex symbolizes safety, love, family, and healing. They offered me the opportunity to see myself as more than my addiction, and the strength to overcome it, and other weaknesses, on my own. They encouraged the confidence to create relationships that exist outside the center, relationships that have shaped who I am today…… These people changed my life.
Quite recently the Alex actually took me on a trip out to sunshine to go skiing. It was an incredible experience because typically my relationship with the staff at the Alex revolves around crisis and deep conversation. There was a moment on the mountain where I experienced pure joy and excitement within a community that was forged from my time at the Alex. I’ve held on to that moment, because I haven’t felt that level of happiness in a long time.
It’s hard for me to tell you exactly what the Alex has done for me, because I can’t pinpoint just one thing. They supply me with my basic necessities – food, warmth, hygiene products – but that’s not all. They give me community and a sense of being. I’ve even started bringing my own family and my friends with me to become a part of that community. The Alex is a safe place for me to vent, and a comfortable place to crack jokes. I walk through those doors and every staff takes the time to say “HI ISAIAH” at the top of their lungs. They are never too busy for me, and never get tired of hearing my story. I am grateful for the Alex and everything they have offered me.
I started coming to The Alex when I was 17, in 2012. I was experiencing homelessness at the time and came in to get an emergency food hamper. For me, it was embarrassing to be asking for help under those circumstances, but The Alex welcomed me with open arms, and did not judge me. I knew this was a place I would want to come back to. I continued to come to The Alex for emergency food hampers, and slowly started learning that there were many other things they could help out with. I started hanging out more and more, and started to get to know the staff. I really liked it. That spring, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. I was scared, and didn’t really know who to turn to. At the time I was also addicted to drugs, that was also embarrassing for me, but I knew where to turn to. I found out about the parenting group on Thursdays, for pregnant and young moms, which I started attending every week. I started seeing the doctor regularly after the class, which is where I received prenatal care. Slowly I became excited about sobriety, pregnancy, and being a mom. The Staff continued to treat me well, supported me through my entire pregnancy, asked me how I was doing, and offered any kind of supports they had. Towards the end of my pregnancy, they helped me get on income support, and get my I.D. Both of which I really needed at the time. I was extremely grateful, and was amazed at how much The Alex Youth Health Centre had offered me, since I started coming, and in such a short time.
On December 10, 2013, I had my daughter. I continued to access Medical and social supports at The Alex. I also continued to go to the parenting group every Thursday. When my daughter was only a month and a half old, Child and Family services intervened, and I had to sign a Family Enhancement Agreement, prove myself, and get her back. This time was extremely difficult for me, and again, I turned to The Alex for help. They helped me with writing letters of participation in programs, which I could give to Child and Family services, and improve my case. I worked really hard, got my own place, and my daughter started coming home slowly.
It has been a long journey to becoming the woman and mother that I want to be. I have struggled with addiction and every time I lost my step, I knew The Alex was a place I could go, get help and not be judged. I got clean and sober and the first place I came to share this was The Alex. I was really excited to tell the staff about my clean time, and the progress I have made mentally and emotionally. Today, I am living with my parents and my daughter, I go to AA and NA meetings daily, and I am coming to The Alex as often as I can. I am looking into coming for regular counselling and addiction support groups. I am forever grateful for The Alex and the supports they have provided.
Today I have dreams, I want to finish high school, and figure out who I want to be when I grow up. I am not there yet, but at least I have hope that that’s a choice I can make – to be something. And a mom. That’s number one. Being an incredible mom for my daughter, that’s the most important thing. She is going to turn 3 in December and she is extremely brilliant, funny and beautiful. I have a living talking giggling reason to stay sober and committed to my goals because this little human is standing by watching me, learning from me. I want to be someone she can look up to. Because of the Alex I know this is more than possible, it is going to happen.
Back in the end of last year, my girlfriend of a year, and I were suffering from mental illness. Having no idea what to do or how to live with it, we laid in my bed all day and watched the world go by. We didn’t go to school. We called into work. We let family drift away. And at night we’d carve into our skin seeking relief.
On a Wednesday in December my girlfriend’s and my life changed forever. After a morning of lying there I voiced an idea. You see for a few years I went to the Alex Bus. But I wasn’t at school nearly enough to go consistently. I asked my girlfriend if she could google how to get to the Alex Youth Health Centre by Transit. And in sweats and oversized hoodies – we walked in that door for the first time.
Now here I am standing tonight. Where I can say this has been some of the best and hardest time I have ever done. Because I would be lying if some days I didn’t’ want to return to that place of darkness. But if I feel this slipping. I know what to do.
I go to the Youth team. And their always there to catch me. Whether it be the amazing doctors, understanding opportunity personnel, or a listening ear and a ukulele song.
Me now ten months later? Well I’ve returned to school. And though it’s two years late I walk the stage in June. I have an incredible job. And my girlfriend and I plan on going to the University of Calgary next fall.
To summarize, my answer to the question of what the Alex has done for me is simple. These people saved my life and my girlfriend’s life as well and I will never be able to thank them enough for all they’ve done. Thank you.
Tyler first started coming into the Alex YHC drop-in to sit down and grab a sandwich, avoiding eye contact and refusing to talk to anyone. It took a few days but slowly youth workers started to build with him. He started to trust little by little and shared that he was living at the DI, but that he didn’t need any help, he was fine. Staff noticed that he was struggling with mental health, his hygiene was suffering and he looked emaciated.
Every time Tyler would go to sit down he grabbed his abdomen as if in pain, but refused to see a doctor. He said he was afraid of doctors. Staff refused to give up. We work in an interdisciplinary team, as such our docs are able to come in and build relationships with youth in a casual setting. One of the docs was brought in by a youth worker and she sat next to Tyler, slowly he agreed to be seen.
We discovered that Tyler had untreated schizophrenia, and he was grabbing his abdomen because he had had bowel cancer and a full colostomy. The medical team was shocked to discover that Tyler, was using a Safeway bag as a colostomy bag, and was suffering from an extreme infection. He said that he didn’t have any money for the supplies or medications.
The Alex mobilized quickly, got him all the supplies he would need that day, paid for his medications and began looking into housing. As Tyler’s mental health became stabilized, and he started working with nurses and counseling on nutrition and coping strategies, he started coming to the youth drop-in space and connecting more and more with staff. He had lost contact with family, and felt afraid to reach out.
Youth workers helped him rebuild his support network and discovered through that he had an incredible talent for music. Tyler started to go downtown and play on the Stephen Ave Community piano and people would gather to listen. Youth workers reached out to the University of Calgary Music department and asked if someone would come to the Youth Health Centre to hear Tyler’s story and listen to him play. This lead to Tyler getting accepted into the U of C music department and scholarship for student housing. Today he is working towards his dream of being a recording artist.
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