Hope and Sunshine

There’s a glorious sensation of freedom when life gives us something to reach for, when we have moments that are about adventure and connection, when we can share experiences that take our breath away and make us reach for more.

Maybe that’s why we work at this place we call The Alex. We see the struggle, we watch how hard it is to climb a mountain when every foothold is uncertain, when lives have been beaten down by circumstance, trauma, abuse, addiction, mental health, disability, poverty, homelessness. The list is long.

Sometimes we hear the message “I couldn’t do what you do. It feels so hopeless.”  And you sit with that word “hopeless” on your drive home. Turning it over in your mind again and again. What is hope? What does that look like? Where does it live? How do we create HOPE? What makes one person capable of change, when all odds are against them?

This is the journal of a frontline worker at The Alex. The journal of a would-be change maker.

Every day we try a new set of ingredients: keys to an apartment, hot food, kind words, clothing, counselling, school, employment. But in the back of our minds a record is spinning softly, forever on repeat –singing about this business of hope and joy and change.

We have fancy words like “Stages of Change,” “Motivational Interviewing,”  “Case Management,” “Harm Reduction,” and we learn with an uncanny eagerness. We grasp hard to these tools and approaches hoping that they will help us in our quest to change the world.

But the truth is it’s not an exact science. There is no guaranteed formula. The only thing I am even acutely certain of is that I can’t change a single person.

What I can do is surround them with every possible resource and take away as many barriers as possible. So back to the mountain metaphor:  I can’t own another person’s climb up the mountain. But what I can do, what The Alex does, is build footholds along the path, so that when a person is ready to start climbing, it’s a heck of a lot easier to not slide back down.

Breaking down barriers. That’s the job, that’s the mission of The Alex. But what about this hope thing? What gives people hope?

I wish there was a magic answer. Truth is I don’t usually have one. But yesterday I saw it. I saw hope in the eyes of 10 youth clients as they boarded a bus (well more like a personal coach) to Sunshine Village.

Excited eyes, giddy smiles, with a slightly standoffish gait, as if to say, “it’s okay if this doesn’t actually happen, I mean this stuff doesn’t happen in my life. Any second now this trip could get taken away, so don’t trust it.” They couldn’t trust it, but as the day unfolded and they were falling in snow, it started to become real. Not just for the kids, but for us workers as well.

We don’t get to see that joy, that laughter and that hope, nearly often enough.  Moments that are not defined by crisis, or problem solving, but by the simple bliss of watching someone be on a mountain for the first time, to be in a gondola for the first time, to walk into a luncheon spread and be treated like a VIP. To see grins that big.

I have always loved mountains. I have grown up with the incredible privilege of snowboarding and hiking my whole life, yet yesterday was my first time all over again with those kids. I got to remember what that moment felt like, to watch a first carve, and the sheer desire to get in as many runs as possible because it’s just that much fun.  Sunshine Village did something amazing, but I don’t really think they understand exactly what they gave. It may look like just the gift of adventure, or an experience, but it was so much more. It was HOPE. Not just for the youth, but for our entire team. In one swoop, all of us got filled up.

I sat on a chairlift with a young man and he told me a story of growing up in child welfare and being from Siksika. These were his words:

“My people don’t ski, or have the opportunity to ski, and I almost didn’t make it today, but I am so glad I did. I want different things in my life.  I want to be a leader for my people, and when I am out here, I know that I am not getting into trouble. In the city you forget about the earth and our connection to it as First Nations people.

This reminds me of what I am supposed to do and be a part of.”

Needless to say, I may have had a moment right there and then, where I pretended that a snowflake mysteriously landed in my eyes and I had to wipe it away with my gloves.

That was just one story of so many from our day on the mountain. Stories of laughter and so many memories. We have never heard so many thank yous or statements of  “This is the best thing that has happened to me all year” as youth lapped run after run on a strawberry chair, with legs long passed tired and hearts full.

Yesterday Sunshine Village gave hope. So back to the metaphor of a mountain:  Not every problem can be solved, but sometimes they don’t have to be to move forward. It’s about taking what we have, what we think we know, and climbing the mountain, even if it feels impossible. It’s about finding the moments of hope and harnessing them to build something even better for ourselves and for our clients.

Kate Hawksworth @khawksworth
Program Lead,  Youth Health Clinic
The Alex

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