Brenda Major has been a member of the ASK Wellness Society family in Merritt for two years and in that time she has been able to use her own personal and family history to help guide people battling addiction towards a more healthy and stable lifestyle.
Brenda grew up in St. Paul’s Basin near Merritt, now known as the Coldwater Reserve 1, and she says like many Indigenous Canadians she was surrounded by addiction and substance use from a young age.
“I grew up with grandparents whom abused substances and learned from that,” she recalls. “They did the best they could but I knew what I didn’t want to be when I got older. For me, substance abuse was a big role in my life and when I started to work here I started to see that I wanted to make a change. I wanted to make a difference because I am a recovering addict myself and having lost my dad to overdose as well I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t realize I would be doing this. Honestly, I didn’t.”
As for what “this” is, Brenda is a Life Skills Support Worker in the Adult Addictions Supportive Housing (AASH) program in Merritt. AASH links participants to affordable housing options in the community and helps them to maintain that housing while they take part in addictions programming offered by entities such as Interior Health. Brenda’s role in particular includes working with people living with addictions by supporting them to access the resources they need in the community as well as teaching them general daily living skills that many of us take for granted.
“I help people with addictions learn how to focus on just daily life,” she says. “Paying their bills, showing them how to add minutes to a cell phone., supporting them to go to medical appointments, going with them to social work appointments and just support them to say what they need to say.”
With a large element of the AASH program being daily activities like working on group craft projects, going bowling, and many other skill and confidence building activities, Brenda herself admits when she first started doing this work she was skeptical as to whether it was actually helpful. But when she expressed these feelings to one of the participants who had been in the program for a while she learned she was giving them a schedule, reminding them to eat, and changing their lives by giving them a new routine which is all they wanted.
“That for me was an eye-opener and really changed my own attitude as to why I was there,” she says as she reflects on how working in AASH has changed her own view of things. “Taking what they’re sharing and learning from their experiences with heavy addictions with drugs and alcohol and everything. Without even looking at myself because I guess in that time I was blind to it. How I changed, I just kind of gradually changed on my own. But when I got it from their point of view it actually opened my eyes up to why we are here.”
Like all jobs, Brenda experiences good and bad days at work. She notes the rough days are those like one she experienced recently that involved the death of an AASH participant.
“It was so unexpected and that was hard,” she says. “You see them every day and you talk to them and learn their dreams, you learn their wants, and their habits.
She says other challenging days are when participants try the program and simply aren’t ready.
“Then you have to deal with that and not take it personal,” she adds. “Those are really hard things too because I’m a really caring person but I have to understand that’s their battle not mine. I’m only here to walk beside them and guide them.”
As for what a good day looks like, you can see the passion and joy in Brenda when she gets to talk about the people who she has seen come through the program and moved on to bigger and better things.
“When you see the person realize for themselves the changes that need to make”, she says thinking particularly of a pair of young mothers she has guided through the program. “These moms who were struggling very hard and the day they walk into the office and say, ‘I’m ready for change. Today is the day and I don’t want to go back.’ Those are my best days because they’re thriving and not only going forward they’re pushing and taking it by the horns and just running.”
One of those young mothers is Chelsea Johnnie who was profiled in a previous ASK Wellness Society article. She credits much of her success to the AASH program and the smile that comes to Brenda’s face when talking about Chelsea is something to behold.
“I am so proud right now she’s in a carpentry course will have her first year of carpentry when completed, so she has kept in touch with me,” she says. “She’s in a women in trades carpentry course and she’s actually building deck a houses right now. So, for me, that just makes me glow. She’s got another new vehicle and so much success. She’s got her children and everything is going well. There are no relapses yet so for me that just makes my heart huge. When I first met her, she was so hard on herself and now she’s strong for herself and able to voice those things. Seeing that is huge coming from the person who walked in my door who was so beat down and didn’t love herself.”
Brenda admits she was able to use her own family story to help Chelsea when she was struggling the most. Brenda knew it was important to Chelsea that she breaks the cycle of addiction in her family so that her children can grow up with different opportunities and role models which is something that Brenda is living proof of. Her own mother battled addiction during her early childhood years and she credits much of what she has been able to accomplish in life to seeing her mother change her own ways.
“If she hadn’t sobered up it would have changed my life and my daughter’s life,” she says. “I was about six or seven years old when she quit so I was young enough for her to change my life. She just hit 40 years of sobriety. By her changing it impacted my life and that’s impacted my daughter. That’s the exact thing I told Chelsea. If you change your life it will have an impact on your children. So, she asked ‘How do I know that works?’ I told her my mom quit and me and my brothers seeing her quit changed our lives so when I had my daughter I decided she was never going to be afraid to be at home. She will feel safe at home. Those are big changes.”
Success comes in all forms, however, and Brenda notes that for some that may just mean getting to have a good day or a good week. Whether they are able to work the program through to it’s completion and move on to live independently, or simply learn a few skills that help them achieve their goals when they get further along in their journey, she gets to see the progress in the participants every day.
“We talk about honesty all the time and how it’s not for us it is for themselves,” she says. “If that’s the only thing they take from the whole program I feel like we’re successful.”
As for what Brenda has learned about what is missing in her community when it comes to working with people living with addictions, in particular those who are Indigenous, she feels it is the need to provide more support for Indigenous people in urban settings.
“I myself being from this community was blind to the fact there are homeless people,” she says. “In my culture if you have family, aunties and uncles, then you’re taken in somewhere. But, I hadn’t taken into consideration that on reserve, substances aren’t there. So, where are they going to go? They’re going to go to town and be where the substances are. Now we have a lot of young people in their 20’s and 30’s that are in addiction. How do we educate them? There are not enough Indigenous supports in the community that work on spiritual healing or anything like that.”
Brenda is one of over 200 people that come to work for the ASK Wellness Society everyday with the goal of improving the health and wellness of the people who walk through our doors and the communities we serve. She says being part of this family has changed her life.
“If I have a problem I don’t think I can handle I can go to another coworker and ask for help,” she says. “They will come in and try with me or reach out to somebody else and solve this together. If you’re having a hard day they will do their best to make your day better even just by listening.”
As for a final message, Brenda says she wants to give kudos to her mother who has inspired her to live a healthy and helpful life for herself, her family, and her community.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about supportive housing in the City of Penticton, in particular what it does not do. Community members and politicians alike have lamented the lack of addictions treatment provided and the lack of enforcement against residents with the belief they are to blame for all the city’s woes. Let’s talk about what it does do. In particular, let’s talk about what it has done for Blair Balch who has been a resident at Burdock House for the past year and what him being housed has meant for Penticton.
In years past, Blair may have been the guy you would see stealing from your local Wal-Mart to get something to sell to buy street drugs. You may have passed him on Main St. while he was sleeping during the day and called a By-Law officer to have him moved along. You may have seen him trying to find a warm place to get somewhat comfortable when the temperature was below freezing and all the beds at the shelter were full. Today, he doesn’t steal to feed his addiction, and you won’t see him sleeping on a city bench or in the snow, all because he has a supportive housing bed and has been engaged with the staff who work at Burdock House.
Now forty-nine years old, Blair grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, with his mother, father, and his older brother. Addiction and trauma played a large role in his life from an early age as both his parents battled alcoholism. At the age of eighteen, he began having run-ins with the law, and it was the beginning of a pattern that has plagued him for many years.
“Spent the majority of my adult life in jail,” he says. “17 years and 46 days to be exact. And I’ve been an addict more or less since I was 16. It’s progressed from weed to coke to meth.”
While he was in jail back east, the rest of his family moved west and settled in Penticton in 1990. He completed a lengthy sentence in 1995 before following his family west in hopes of a new start with the support of his family. While for some, a change of scenery can lead to a new path, new choices, and new outcomes; for Blair the move only led to more of the same.
“Constantly in and out of jail and when I wasn’t in jail I was couch surfing or living on the street,” he recalls of most of the two and a half decades he has spent in Penticton. “But that never really lasted all that long … no more than four months and I was back in. That’s when I was harsh into crack. So, I’d get out and start boosting so I can get my dope, then next thing you know I’m back inside.”
His crimes were mostly those that continue to fill up the Penticton RCMP statistics ledger today: property offences, drug dealing, and thefts. When he looks back on those early years when he first got to the Okanagan and as he continued the cycle of addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, what he feels was missing is the same thing we hear from politicians, the police, and service providers today.
“Support … somebody to talk to,” he says. “Peer pressure is pretty bad too, right? So, when you get out and you’ve got all your buddies and they’re still partying it up, stuff like that, you jump right back into it. As much as while you’re inside, you’re sitting there thinking ‘I’m going do things different’, as soon as that gate opens you’re back into your old lifestyle. Might take a day or two but generally you jump right back into it.”
Though he has been in Burdock House since October of 2019, this is not his first kick at the can, as it were. Blair was given his first chance at supportive housing in 2016 when he had a unit at Fairhaven, which, at the time, was operated by BC Housing. He admits he didn’t make the most of that opportunity, and he was exited from the program back to homelessness.
“At the beginning they say you’re only allowed fourteen guests per year and I was way past that,” he recalls. “They accused me of selling drugs too but they had no proof. I was, I’m not going to deny it. But the main reason was because of my overnight guests.”
He says because of that experience and becoming homeless again as a result of his actions, when given a second chance with a supportive housing unit at Burdock House, it made him approach it differently this time around.
“I’m definitely not doing that again,” he says. “You only have to tell me once, sometimes. There are some rules that are Mickey Mouse in my eyes, but if I want to stay here I need to follow them, right? [Burdock]’s a good place and I’m glad it’s here because it’s saved my life. I would either be on the street using and committing crimes, or in jail, even dead, so I’m glad I’m here.”
Not only has his time remaining housed at Burdock led to better outcomes within his housing, he also hasn’t had any issues with police or by-laws during this time.
“I do have a past so it’s come back to nip me in the bud a few times,” he says of his past criminal charges. “Other than that, I have no intention of going back [to jail] or doing anything that would put me back.”
Another major scuttlebutt of the supportive housing model is a lack of forced sobriety. There is a belief among detractors that if a person is still embroiled in their addiction they are still a problem. Admittedly, Blair still does use methamphetamine. However, without making the conscious decision to use less, and without being involved in any programming specific to battling his addiction, he has noticed a change since becoming housed.
“I use a lot less for some reason, I don’t know why it’s just going down and down,” he says. “I have no intention of quitting fully … but I’ve gone from an eight ball of meth a day (around three and a half grams) down to maybe half a gram. I’m a needle user, so I went from doing ten or fifteen shots a day down to maybe two.”
Of course, Blair is just one example, and he may even be an outlier when it comes to the decrease in the strain on community resources that has taken place by him being housed. So what about those who aren’t yet housed? He notes that for some, even if there was an infinite amount of supportive housing, it still wouldn’t help.
“I’ve mentioned this place a few times to some of them,” he says. “But, they’ve been on the street for so long it’s almost like the way they live now and what they’re used to. There’s just no getting through to them. They could be on their death bed and they won’t come to any kind of support they’re just used to living on the street.”
“I don’t know if you can call it a community out there,” he continues. “They got all their friends and stuff like that, but there are some that are screaming to get in a place like this but there is no availability.”
So, what comes next for somebody like Blair? He has gone from being homeless and excessively using substances while committing crime to feed his addiction, to being housed with reduced drug use to the point he no longer needs to commit crime and is no longer a strain on resources like the RCMP. But where does he go from here? As a forty-nine year old man with the history he has and living on disability for his income, where does a community expect him to go in order to make room for the next person who needs the kind of support he has received to get him to where he is now? These are the questions a community like Penticton needs to be working towards answering.
It has been a long road with many speed bumps and detours along the way, but ASK Wellness Society’s Street Outreach Worker, Brian Wells, has finally found what he feels many of the clients he sees everyday need more than anything: love for himself.
Brian grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, a place he remembers as “good but grimy”, and from an early age, addiction and trauma played a major role in his life.
“I grew up with both parents, but my father was an alcoholic,” Brian says. The deep familial roots of addiction are evident when listening to Brian talk about his own father’s upbringing. “Basically, his mom got told if she drinks again, she will die, and she died the first week out of the hospital. His dad, I didn’t know my grandpa, but he shot himself. And my dad’s sister died of a cocaine overdose at 21.”
“He ended up waiting four years for a liver transplant and he was the successful candidate,” Brian states. “He got a liver transplant and it bought him 22 more years. He just passed away this past year due to cancer.”
Even though his parents stayed together growing up, Brian still remembers it as being a tough upbringing. While his father worked and provided for the family, his drinking took a heavy toll on the family. “And my mom,” Brian says, “She always let me go with my father. I’d make a scene and she always sent me out with my dad. I never wanted to be with my mom. So, I saw a lot of addiction with my dad.”
Brian’s own story of drug use and addiction began at the age of 12, when he began smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rougher crowd. By 15, he was using crack and cocaine and was regularly in trouble with the law.
“My first time I got in trouble, I was 13 and got into a fight with my brother and this other group of kids,” he recalls. “The police came and I got charged with assault, so they arrested me and brought me to the detention centre, the jail, and while I was in there, there were four other young offenders in the big bull pen and we basically played hacky sack with a sock and toilet paper. It wasn’t a bad experience.”
When he reflects on his first time being ‘punished’ by the justice system, with the wisdom of hindsight and the time that has passed, he realizes the trickle effect that first experience has had on his life. The leniency he was shown ended up playing a major role in his apathy towards the rules of society, as he advanced through his teen years. Following his first time in a detention centre, he completed his probation and community service. Shortly after that experience, things began to quickly progress to more serious and harmful behaviour.
“When I was 15 I had already built up my addiction,” he says. “That’s when an older guy convinced me I was able to cash a stolen cheque out of the mailbox and bring it to Money Mart and that I’d be able to cash it. When I was in there, they knew something was up; I was 15 with no ID. I ended up walking out of the place and buddy’s like, ‘Go back, it’s working and it’s going to be good’. So, I went back in and I just didn’t like the vibe, so I walked out and as I walked out, there were two police cars that rolled up and I just kept walking. When I got out, they apprehended another guy that was sitting there because they looked at me as a kid and left me be. So, I kept walking and the teller came out of the Money Mart and said ‘no, no, no, it’s this guy’ so they actually apprehended me and I got told I was going to jail.”
After his first experience interacting with the justice system, Brian expected to see his most recent actions resulting in a bit of a harsher treatment, maybe even some harder time in a more restrictive facility. Instead, he describes what most would think sounds more like a summer camp experience.
“My first experience was pretty kosher,” he says, “well, the second experience the judge was like, ‘You’re going to jail’ and they sent me to a young offender open custody place. The first week there, I was going to the Wild Waterworks, we went to the movie theatre. We started smoking weed on the property because people were having visits, so it was quite the experience being that I’d broken the law and told I was being punished. So, I actually got rewarded, in a sense, because it was a time.”
It is sufficient to say that with this being his ‘penalty’, he was less than inspired to begin walking down a different path in his life. Upon his release, he continued to get into trouble with the law and served a couple more stints in open custody. This was until during one of those sentences, he fled the facility. He says he can’t remember why he chose to run, but it didn’t take long until the law caught up with him.
“Because that time I had left an open secured facility, they said ‘OK, now you’re going to secured custody young offender’,” he recalls. “When I got to the jail, I literally knew twelve out of the twenty-five people in the range. So again, there was really no punishment. It was just a cool out period with a bunch of hoodlums.”
Brian continued the cycle of incarceration, law breaking, being on the run, and ultimately being caught throughout his teen years. For most young adults, reaching the legal age means you begin to try new things with the new freedoms you are given. For Brian, it meant it was time for a dose of reality.
“At 18, I’d already racked up a few charges and the judge is like, ‘OK we’re sending you to prison, you’re going to the penitentiary now’,” he says. “When I went to the pen, I was 19 by the time everything transpired. So, I thought I was going to go to low-medium, but I had already had a few altercations inside the jail with fights, which unfortunately are a normal affair because violence in jail is normal. So, my thought is, ‘I’m going to be out in one-sixth my time because I’m a young person’. Well, they classified me as maximum security and I ended up having to do two-thirds of my time.”
Brian’s periods of incarceration did little to change his behaviour as a free man. The things he was exposed to in prison were things he would have ended up seeing while out on the street with the circle of friends he was running with. Now, with the step up to an adult facility, he was about to be led down a very different and more harmful path.
“While I was there, I had done heroin and stuff but I never touched a needle,” he says. “That was my first time I ever did IV drug use, was in prison. There, the saying is true: you can find a flap of heroin quicker than a mail stamp.”
Three years later when released at the age of 22, Brian was a heavy IV drug user. He was released from prison with no support, other than being sent back to his parent’s house. He began taking methadone to combat his opiate addiction, but old habits die hard. He once again found himself on the run and missed his dose for three days. When caught and sent back to prison, the doctors said he couldn’t be prescribed his dose again as it was so high, it could kill him.
“So, they cut me off cold turkey and I’d say for a few weeks I was laying on that prison floor and vowed never to touch opiates or narcotics ever again,” he remembers. “I basically lied to myself, of course, and I got right back on it.”
He then spent another twenty-two months in jail, before being released at the age of twenty-four. Previously, the lack of discipline the justice system had doled out to him as a youth had helped guide him down an addictive path. As irony would have it, it was during a final stint in a jail cell that created a new path to help turn his life around. However, it still wasn’t the justice system that led to his change. It was love.
“I met her when I was incarcerated because there was a guy getting visits and I was like, ‘Well if you’re getting visits why don’t you give me somebody to talk to or something’,” he says. “She had a friend and she showed up at the jail and basically she fell head over heels for me.”
When he was released, Brian continued to see her and was introduced to her sixteen-month-old children. Suddenly, he found himself changing his ways for the kids. “I’m the only dad they’ve known,” he says of his relationship with them. “They played a big part. I still got into trouble with the drugs, but I wasn’t committing crime at that point.”
It was not long after his release that Brian and his family felt it was time for a change. “We left Ontario with a one-way ticket in 2005 and ended up in Kamloops,” he recalls. “I thought the geographical change would help because it was just a matter of time before I was going to go back to the addiction and go back to incarceration.”
When Brian and his family moved to Kamloops, they found themselves living in an apartment building that has long been synonymous with drug use and all the issues that come with that scene.
“I got there, there was a drug shack right next door,” he recalls. “A shack in the other building, and then there was a station wagon out in the parking lot where this girl was running her operation out of. Wasn’t long before I started using drugs again and ended up in the [Greystone Apartments] over here. I was just driven by drugs.”
Brian says at this point, he was using heroin, crack, and cocaine, but his drug of choice was opiates. It got to the point where he realized he needed to get some help. He recognized that, like many of the people he knew who had gone down this path before, he would not survive.
“In 2005, I went to what is the Kiwanis recovery place and I successfully did the program in 28 days, which was awesome,” he says. “It really helped. But I feel like in 28 days, you are just putting a band-aid on without really taking care of the problem or the wound. It takes time to dig in and you have to have other supports. Luckily for me, I did get into the facility, but that was ’05 and it’s 2021 now and the problem arises: if you need help today, there is no help today. It’s a process and to get into the detox you have to be actively using. By then you’ve either got a good kickstart and you can do it, or you are just entrenched, and I know people that didn’t even get the opportunity because they’re dead now. When people need help, they need it today, not next week. When you make that commitment or hope to do it, you need to do it now.”
As a Street Outreach Worker, Brian works with those who are homeless and/or battling addiction to provide harm reduction and support.
From there, Brian began to ween himself off methadone and in 2008, at the age of twenty-six, began thinking about what the rest of his life was going to look like. He reached out to the ASK Wellness Society and was introduced to a program that offered construction skills and a chance at a new life for people with a background like his.
“I did six months with a fella here that ran it and it definitely inspired me to learn new skills,” he says. “And the appreciation of ASK Wellness that they do deliver with the main slogan of ‘hope’ and they definitely offer hope.”
After finishing that program, he got a job as a painter. He did on-and-off for several years before he found an opportunity to not only use some of the skills he had learned, but to also give back to the community.
“I saw an opportunity with ASK Wellness about a general building manager at the new property Stollery Suites, which is independent living, a seniors’ building, and a lot of people there with the same background and story as mine and I just ran with it,” he says. “Every day I showed up to work and it was a very awesome opportunity to have.”
After that, another opportunity came available and he moved to the evening outreach position with the Overdose Prevention team. Now, he was working on the street with young men and women who were living the same life he lived as a young man.
“It’s essentially saving lives,” he says of his new role. “Harm reduction, making sure people are cared for and listen to them and do what we can do to offer supports. In the other sense we can offer and do anything, at some point in your life, you have to take responsibility for your actions. That was something that I hadn’t done in my life prior to getting clean and realizing that all my problems were basically at my own hand.”
While he may not have the same education and background in social work as some of his peers, Brian says his background has given him skills you can’t learn in a classroom. He hones in on those skills when he finds people who remind him of his former self.
“I just listen to them and talk to them,” he says. “You can hear the despair when they’re talking. Some of them are like ghosts in shells out there with the drugs. It’s the reality of this disease. I lost hope myself and hope only came back to me by somebody else. Just to be able to talk with them and I know I won’t have the answers to everything, and we all have different life circumstances and pain and trauma. Essentially that is the forefront of the interactions I deal with, is pain.”
“I just encourage and say ‘I was that. I was an IV drug user. I was in incarceration, and I’m a changed person today by my higher power and hard work and determination.’ I just really encourage people to love themselves because that’s ultimately what they don’t have.”
Aside from his work as a Street Outreach Worker, the now thirty-nine-year-old Brian says he lives a quiet life these days. While he is no longer with the woman he met while incarcerated many years ago, he is now engaged to his fiancé, who he describes as his best friend. He loves to spend time with her, his dog, and to live a healthy lifestyle. He also spends time writing rhymes about some of the things he has gone through and what he sees today (click here to see some of his work). Despite his new lease on life and the positive changes he has made, he continues to fight off his old demons.
“As an addict, I fell back into the addiction about six months ago of drinking,” he says. “It put me in a situation that I put myself in of being intoxicated. So, I quit drinking September 26 and haven’t had a drink since. This is a life-long battle [you fight] with the right support network and your own will, and to some a higher power. But, at the end of the day with addiction, you are powerless if you’re entrenched into it. So you’ve got to find something to dig yourself out.”
Having lived on both sides of a life of addiction, he believes what is currently needed is support for people who are willing to enter a recovery program now. It needs to be immediate, when they have something happen that inspires them to change, not weeks or months or years later, depending on the length of a waiting list.
“I’m a big supporter of these programs now that they have like the Dilaudid program and the supports,” he says. “They are preventing crime and stopping people from committing crime and just being a different person.”
As for what’s next for Brian and what he thinks about when he reflects on his life to this point?
“Even superheroes trip on capes,” he says. “Just trying to be a good person and do the best I can.”
Remember, no such thing as safe drugs in the streets
Dealers cutting product with fentanyl ‘cause it’s cheap
100 times stronger than morphine, one dose will put you to sleep
Not talking counting sheep
Real power, 6 ODs in an hour.
Being found in weed, pills, and powder
New fad. Coroner coming to zip you up in a body bag.
Four deaths in a month really sad.
Kids left with no mom or dad, all because the dope they got was bad
Addiction, an epidemic the black market is glad to have
Streets not a game. Chew you up, spit you out if you’re lucky.
Many people die getting high, just trying to feel normal.
Prison not the answer, but need for more rehab centers.
So I looked at my own situation I was facing
Waking every day like I was in the movie Groundhog Day
Always the same, mentally drained, suffering chronic pain
Let me be the first to say, I’m an addict
Understand the hesitation in prescribing narcotics
So, forced to go see the street doctor. No degree, but have what I need
Dear God, please don’t be fentanyl in these pills I receive
No labels or warning, next round could be fatal
Talking two extra grains, the size of salt at your kitchen table
Call in an OD. Coroner records another fatality
A young girl, age sixteen
Solutions needed. Funerals continuously being repeated
Takes one line, one innocent looking line
Another family left behind, crying a river of pain
Drowning in regret
Death’s never had no respect.
Every month, the ASK Wellness Mattress Recycling Program diverts approximately 800 mattresses from regional landfills across the Thompson Nicola Regional District (TNRD). The program aims to extend the lifeline of our local city landfills while contributing to a circular local economy and, most importantly, meaningful job opportunities for individuals with barriers to employment.
We start by de-constructing the mattresses and box springs and sorting materials into different areas of our production line for processing. Through this process, we divert 85% of the waste of each mattress from city landfills, with the goal of one day diverting 100% of the mattress waste for a truly completed circular economy. Foam is pulled from the frame of the mattress and compacted into bales for recycling, spring coils are meticulously removed and placed with metal recycling, and wood frames are refurbished into pallets for a local manufacturing company that ships their products worldwide.
This final step is where we are seeking community aid. The time required for pallet conversion does not allow us to currently keep up with the accumulation of wood being removed from the mattresses. We are reaching out to the Kamloops community with the hope of finding a company, or multiple companies, who could utilize this wood within their own production process. Should you be interested in finding out more, please contact Renata Mrema at 1-236-313-1409.
By Pam Pickering
World AIDS day on December 1, also launches the start of ABORIGINAL AIDS AWARENESS WEEK in Canada. It is a time for reflection: on what we have achieved with regards to the national and global responses to HIV, and what we still must achieve. This years World AIDS Day comes in the midst of another global pandemic, the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The public health response to this is linked. Covid-19 is threatening access to HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and care. Without strategies to meet these needs, we may see a resurgence of HIV that would threaten our public health response to Covid-19.
The joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization have established a global strategy on HIV that includes a target of eliminating AIDS by 2030. Canada has adopted this strategy, including the specific targets of 90-90-90; which is 90% of all people with HIV know their status, 90% receive antiretroviral treatment, and 90% on treatment achieve viral suppression. Canada’s progress on meeting these targets as of the end of 2016; of the estimated 63,110 people living with diagnosed HIV has shown improvement. 86% are diagnosed with HIV, 81% are receiving antiretroviral treatment, and 91% have a suppressed viral load. Canada’s 90=90-90 estimates lie within the range reported by other developed countries such as the US, Australia, the UK, Denmark, and Germany.
Several factors play a role in achieving each of the 90-90-90 targets. There are more options for HIV testing in Canada than in previous years. There are 2 new tests awaiting approval and it is hopeful they will be available in early 2021. The first is the INSTI HIV self test which will be the first tool approved in Canada for people to test themselves for HIV. It is a test that is easy to perform and results are ready in a few minutes. ASK Wellness will be part of this role out by distributing these for free early 2021. In addition, several countries already have the OraQuick Oral HIV test that uses an oral swab rather than a finger pick to detect HIV, and Canada hopes to have approval in 2021 as well. Recent provincial testing initiatives such as “Know Your Status” have increased testing which have lead to new diagnoses.
There are still barriers to HIV testing. Particularly for those at high risk, facilitating early detection through the promotion and availability will help Canada reach the first target.
The second 90-90-90 target (proportion of those diagnosed who are on treatment) continues to be the lowest of the 3 targets. This is true in Canada and other Western countries and may in part be due to the recommendation to treat all HIV infected persons at diagnosis is relatively new. A variety of measure such as ensuring the availability of culturally and gender appropriate educational resources, eliminating barriers to treatment such as cost, developing new drugs and supporting health professionals with resources for appropriate and timely treatment will help in the achievement of the second 90 target. An exciting new drug is on the horizon that will only need to be injected once every 2 to 3 months to aid medication compliance.
After starting treatment many people remain engaged in ongoing care and support to monitor the effectiveness of therapy. These people are able to maintain a suppressed viral load if they take their medication as prescribed and have a drug combination that is effective against their strain of HIV. The effectiveness of such follow up may explain why the third 90-90-90 target is higher than the other two. Certain social, economic, and environmental factors such as the experience of stigma and discrimination, poverty, housing instability or social isolation may influence whether or not a person achieves a suppressed viral load.
The Public Health Agency estimates that 2165 new infections occurred in Canada in 2016 which is an increase from previous years. Among the new infections, approximately 1136 or 52.5% were attributed to gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM). There were 244 new infections attributed to people who inject drugs, representing 11.3%. Heterosexual contact remained constant at 33%, both endemic and non endemic.
The distribution of new infections continues to disproportionately affect certain populations including gbMSM, Indigenous people and people from countries where HIV is endemic. This highlights the need for evidence informed programs that are culturally and gender appropriate. In addition, 1 in 5 new infections is attributed to heterosexual contact among people born in Canada or in a country not on the endemic list, which emphasizes the need for ongoing, broad based prevention and education.
At the end of 2016, an estimated 9000 people or 14% of the 63,110 people living with HIV in Canada, were unaware of their infection. These people are hidden from the health care system so thus cannot take advantage of the appropriate prevention, treatment, and ongoing care and support until they are tested and diagnosed. Since HIV treatment has reduced mortality and new infections are occurring at a rate greater than deaths, the overall number of people living with HIV will continue to increase in the years to come. Strategies aimed at reaching the undiagnosed and increasing the number of people adhering to treatment, could help Canada achieve the first two 90-90-90 targets.
It is the strength within communities, inspired by shared responsibility to each other that has contributed in great part to our victories over HIV. We must continue to put people first. We must end the social injustices that put people at risk of contracting HIV. We must fight for their right to health. There is no excuse for governments to not invest fully for universal access to health. Barriers such as up-front user fees that lock people out must stop. All human rights must be respected, and the criminalization and marginalization of gay men, transgender people, sex workers, and people who use drugs must stop.
As we approach the end of 2020, the world is in very uncertain times and the months ahead will not be easy. Only global solidarity and shared responsibility will help find an affordable and accessible Covid-19 vaccine, end the AIDS epidemic, ,and guarantee the right to health for all.
In a world where it is always the presidents, the CEOs, or other “bigwigs” that become synonymous with an organization and its legacy, it is quite fitting that the figure who most represents the history and impact of the ASK Wellness Society has had on its community and its clients was never an Executive Director, a board member, or even an employee. No, she was simply a volunteer. A volunteer who has dedicated her life to a cause that many have shied away from or even been afraid of; the battle against HIV/AIDS. Of course, if you have had many interactions with the ASK Wellness Society over the past 28 years, formerly the Aids Society of Kamloops, you will know we are referring to. For those who do not know, this is the story of a woman who has lost over 100 friends and acquaintances to the deadly disease and turned that pain into action to make sure future generations would not feel that same hurt. This is the story of Cookie Reimer.
In the early 1980’s Cookie was living in Lillooet and working in a bar where she met a man who would go on to become a life-long friend of hers. He is gay and every month he would make a trip to Vancouver to party and be surrounded by more like-minded individuals than there were in the small Interior community.
“I started to go with him,” says Cookie. “I met the most amazing people. By 1985 I had met hundreds of people. Then they started to be positive.”
Of course, Cookie is referring to what would turn in to an epidemic within the gay community: HIV/AIDS.
“They partied hardy in those days,” she says. “All the clubs in Vancouver in those days. But nobody knew it was that dangerous to be hooking up for these one night stands.”
All of a sudden what had been normal activity through the 1970’s and early 1980’s, meeting somebody in a bar or club and hooking up for a night before returning to the doldrums of regular adulthood, became deadly.
“It was really unbelievable,” Cookie recalls. “It was the saddest thing. I have been in hospital rooms holding friends’ hands. I have made last suppers for friends that have died. From 1983 to the present I have lost 114 friends and acquaintances to AIDS.”
At the time, the health impacts of the disease alone was horrendous enough, but in the early 80’s the medication used to treat those who tested positive was AZT and other medication cocktails.
“I’m not sure which was harder,” Cookie says. “The medication or the actual disease. It killed them. But that was their choice, period.”
Cookie says going to memorials and getting phone calls of lost friends became a regular occurrence going to memorials. Even as the disease began to slip out of mainstream attention she continued to feel the loss, losing nine friends in 2003 alone.
“One of my friends who died on February the 5th, 2020, his fridge door was lined with meds,” she recalls. “They had all quit working. The cocktail of drugs quit working and he died. Today people can take two or three pills in a day. My friends were taking handfuls of pills twice a day. When the combo of drugs stopped working, you were done.”
Not only was a positive diagnosis a near death sentence for many, but the stigma also that came with it was equally damaging.
“They kept their illness secret,” she says. “They hid their pills if anybody came around. If they were going down to Seattle to party they didn’t take their meds because if they got searched they were turned away from forever. Same as Mexico.”
Cookie goes on to say she would introduce people she knew with a positive diagnosis to other friends of hers and they would avoid shaking hands or even standing to close to somebody with the disease.
In the latter part of the 1980’s, Cookie had thrown herself into volunteerism and advocacy for those who were living with HIV/AIDS. She began taking part in the AIDS walk in Vancouver and had developed a reputation as strong fundraiser from whom nobody could escape.
“Nobody was sacred,” she says. “My doctor, lawyer, dentist, everybody. Nobody was safe from a pledge. Though I did reward a lot of people with my dills and my yum-yum pickles.”
After a lot of time and effort supporting the cause, in 1990 Cookie married her husband and the pair moved to Kamloops where she had plans to focus on things other than her advocacy and volunteering.
“When I moved here I made the big decision that I was not going to volunteer for anything for ten years,” she says.
It did not take long for her to break her promise.
In 1991 she met Alfons Jalink, founder of the Aids Society of Kamloops which he had started in his basement in 1988, and the Society’s executive Director Mary Ann Sandrelli. At first, Cookie held to her initial promise and did not get right back into volunteering, despite the pleas from the Society. However, by September of 1992 she could no longer resist her desire to rejoin the fight.
“A few friends came up from the coast and from Kelowna,” she says. “We decided we were going to do the AIDS walk in Kamloops. We met at the Grind on Victoria Street and there were very few people there. Mostly they were hovering around the BBQ for the hot dogs. Not a lot of walking was going to happen. I said to Maryann ‘Let’s walk around this block and when people ask we’ll let them know we’re doing an AIDS walk’.”
And so, it began. When they returned Cookie pulled out $300 and asked Sandrelli who was collecting the pledge money.
“Maryann looked at me and said, ‘Nobody really does the pledges and collects money,’” Cookie recalls. I said, ‘That is the whole idea – to raise awareness and collect money for the organization.’”
A few days later, Cookie was asked to speak to some staff members of the Aids Society about how they should go about fundraising.
“And I went ‘here it goes,’” she says. “So, I talked it over with my husband and he said, ‘you’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing this.’”
Cookie met with the Society staff members and gave them a “rah-rah” speech about what they do in Vancouver. After that, Sandrelli kept in touch with Cookie, asking her to join the board of directors or any other way she could keep her involved.
It wasn’t long before Cookie was in the office every Monday, cooking meals for the Society’s clients who by this time were not just those with HIV/AIDS diagnoses, but anybody who needed a helping hand.
“It was a really mixed bag of people who were down and out and the Aids society was an open door,” she says. “The New Life Mission also served meals, but you had to listen to a sermon before you got fed. Salvation Army also served a meal. Then the United Church started. There were only a few places you could get a meal.”
Initially, Cookie was told she would only be cooking for about ten to twelve people. That rang true for a couple of months. Soon after that, as word spread of the great meals churning out of Cookie’s kitchen, the number of mouths to feed grew to over a hundred. As is always the case though, no good deed goes unpunished.
“The health department came along because we didn’t have a dishwashing system, we just had volunteers who washed the dishes,” she says. “I said to the now Mayor of Kamloops, Ken Christian, because he was the public health guy, ‘Are you kidding me? These people live on the street. They’re eating out of dumpsters. We’re serving them a meal on a clean plate. It doesn’t have to be with a dishwasher.’ Anyway, he shut us down. I was so annoyed. I wrote a huge letter to the editor. But anyway, that stopped.”
While the meals stopped, Cookie’s involvement in the AIDS walk in both Vancouver and Kamloops continued. By the late 90’s she was raising several thousand dollars every year that would go to support the cause. Along with being the top fundraiser, she was also organizing the walk in Kamloops, though she describes it as more like a fair.
“We would get like 200 to 300 people and do it at Riverside Park or Stuart Wood Elementary School,” she says. We would have a band and a really good walk all around downtown. Teachers, doctors, lots of people took part.”
This period was a time of change for the Aids Society. Sandrelli had moved away and was replaced as the Executive Director by Jo Rothenburger who Cookie describes as “so liberal and non-judgemental”. Cookie and Rothenburger hit it off quite well and she was accepted by all the clients and staff, though there were only five or six employees at the time.
Jo served as the Executive Director until she retired and was replaced a couple times before the now Chief Executive Officer of the ASK Wellness Society Bob Hughes entered the scene.
“It was the greatest,” Cookie says of her first memories of Hughes. “The board said to Bob ‘You’ll meet Cookie, whatever she asks for, just give it to her.’” (See a message about Cookie from Hughes below).
As the years rolled on under Hughes’ leadership, the Society began to grow in size and impact. Despite the growth, what Cookie describes as the enthusiasm and aura of the Aids Society continued.
“Bob has this natural way of energizing people and the community embraced his energy,” she says. “His speaking ability and charisma really enhanced our ability in the council and on the streets of the North Shore. It has just come such a long way. I am so proud.”
Overtime, the AIDS Walk in Kamloops and across British Columbia began to diminish. The 20,000 person events in Vancouver now only saw around 1000 people, and in Kamloops the large BBQs in the park were replaced by much smaller gatherings. But one constant remained at the Kamloops events: Cookie did the cooking.
“We get to about 2017/18 and the stigma around HIV is kind of fading I guess,” Cookie says. “Because of the meds, because of the treatments, people are becoming a little complacent. The walk and the rah-rah around it began stepping back. Kira Haug had come on board in the 2000s as well and was an amazing co-organizer with me.”
“The first meeting I had with her to organize our first AIDS Walk For Life left me a bit intimidated,” says for Haug, a former ASK Wellness Society BBI Health Navigator, “Cookie is a force to be reckoned with! From that first meeting we threw over 25 events, including World AIDS Day, HEPATITIS Awareness Day and Walk With Us. Let's just say she knows what she wants and won’t accept anything less! I am so grateful to call Cookie my great friend and family.”
In an attempt to rebrand the event, the name was changed from the AIDS Walk For Life to Walk With Us, but interest and participation continued to dwindle. 2018 would also prove to be the final event that Cookie would organize.
“In 2019 I was diagnosed with cancer and I had a huge surgery and I couldn’t cook,” she says. “But the most amazing thing happened. The ladies, the staff and some clients, they made all the stuff I would have made for world aids day. I was two weeks out of the hospital and they were having World AIDS Day and they were having my food. I was able to be there for over an hour.”
Cookie says 2020 has been a year of recovery for her, and she was hoping to get back to doing at least some of the cooking for this year’s event which will not be able to take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was also honoured earlier this year by the organization she has dedicated so much time too with the official groundbreaking of Cookie’s Place, a 55 and up housing facility that will be opened in Kamloops in the fall of 2021.
Despite the drop in attention that HIV/AIDS and those who deal with the disease over the years, Cookie, now 74 years old, still continues to spread awareness where she can.
“I have three grandsons. They’re all teens. They know everything about condoms and safe sex,” she says. “They go ‘Oh granny’, and I say ‘you can’t be safe enough.’”
While she still hopes to “get her groove back” when the world returns to normal and hopes to be cooking again for the AIDS Walk 2021, she has a simple message for all of us:
“Be careful and encourage everyone not to be complacent.”
A message from ASK Wellness Society Chief Executive Officer Bob Hughes on Cookie Reimer:
December 1st will always stand as a day that changed my life. I had just accepted my role as the Executive Director of ASK Wellness Society in 2006 and I was invited to come to the agency’s annual World AIDS Day event to introduce myself. During that wonderful afternoon, snow began to fall around the then new offices of the agency located at 433 Tranquille Road as we began the powerful opening ceremony led by Paul Legace honouring those who had passed from HIV/AIDS. An abundance of the most decadent foods filled the rooms of the warm welcoming space that has served as home base for ASK ever since. At the heart of this most compelling and emotional event was one of the most remarkable human beings I have been blessed to meet, our Cookie Reimer.
Cookie has defined the core values of ASK since its inception. Compassion, Hope, Inclusion, and Trust are these values and the ethos of the agency stem from the fight against AIDS. Cookie has and continues to be our local hero having led the entire Thompson Region to understand the impact of what discrimination and stigma had on people living with HIV and to fight for their dignity as they faced the prospect of dying from the virus. She has literally single handedly raised over a hundred thousand dollars for the organization to support people living with HIV/AIDS in the last twenty years and has fed people with kindness and love for an eternity. Our Cookie is like no other and I am so grateful for all she has taught me as I continue to strive to live to her standard in serving my community to ensure no one gets left behind. She remains my mentor, my friend, and my inspiration as I recognize the importance of World AIDS Day and the work ahead to build better, more inclusive, and compassionate communities.
It is so easy to forget where we were 20years ago as the world faced the destructive power of HIV/AIDS. Effective anti-retroviral medications accessible to all were just on the horizon and millions of people across the globe were dying. Families across the world watched as their parents and children were dying within years of contracting the virus. In Canada, the epidemic was still being felt in communities like Kamloops where people had to wait until they were sick enough to access medication and living with the virus was something that few would talk about openly. Shame and discrimination were commonplace and thus many lived in the shadows afraid of the repercussions of sharing their torment and fears. Without the voices of people like Cookie and organizations like ASK, many would have remained hidden and abandoned. It took courage then to fight for the dignity and possibility of those who lived with HIV in community and this has always been at the heart of ASK Wellness Society. To stand up for equity and to speak for those who can’t or are afraid to share their voices.
What I describe here could easily be the words of someone living with addictions today and those that work and care about them. This is the climate within many of the communities ASK works within. Words of scorn and shame are shared on social media for those living in addictions and without homes and a sense of hopelessness among many of those who walk in our doors. ASK maybe criticized for helping these people; for providing harm reduction supplies and saving lives, for finding homes when few others will, for offering access to health services that are hard to obtain, and for providing employment opportunities for those who have not worked in decades. Many of those we work with are consumed by addictions and mental illness and are living feeling hopeless. These conditions can lead the kindest and most considerate to act in destructive and selfish ways and thus these folks can be difficult to support. Finding compassion while promoting personal accountability is how we have approached our work; something Cookie would support.
There are lessons to be learned from the HIV/AIDS movement that can be applied to the challenges we face during this addiction’s crisis. Organizations like ASK must continue to promote inclusive, compassionate, and accountable communities; something the agency did in the early 1990’s when it was formed. Champions like Cookie are needed in the days ahead who believe in people, who believe their voice matters and who aren’t afraid to say they will never give up on the possibility that addictions can be treated and that everybody deserves a home.
On this day, Word AIDS Day, I extend my gratitude to Cookie Reimer and all those who fight for social justice. No one gets left behind…
It was a very unique experience for the ASK Wellness Society and all those who took part in the 2020 Annual General Meeting. Due to social distancing requirements resulting from the Covid-19 epidemic, the meeting was done in an online format this year. Despite the distance between those taking part however, it was still a great experience for those involved and another chance to remind staff and members of the Society why the work done by the Society is so important.
Aside from amendments made to the Society by-laws governing how these meetings are allowed to take place (i.e. doing them in an online format) the biggest changes to the Society came in the form of a restructuring of the Society’s board of directors which included the departure of some key figures in the growth of the Society.
The meeting was chaired by board chair Melanie Reed who was making her final appearance as part of the ASK Wellness Society board of directors. Melanie began her time with the board in 2014 and served as director-at-large, then secretary, then chair. With her background in human resources she played a major role in the growth of the Society as well as a major contributor to the effort to become accredited. Melanie’s leadership will be greatly missed as she steps away from the board and has left some large shoes to fill by her replacement, long time director Dr. Stan Fike.
Another departure from the board of directors following this years AGM is one of the longest serving directors and well-known figure in the Kamloops community, Chris Rose. Chris served on the board for a decade after spending years volunteering with the homeless population and being involved with the “Out of the Cold” shelter program. While the Society will miss his compassion and wisdom, we wish him all the best as he steps away to spend more time with his has three children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Also stepping down from his role on the board is Cliff Thorstensen. Cliff played a key role on the board as he was the only director from Merritt and proudly served as the voice representing that community on the board. He continues his practice as a lawyer in the Nicola Valley with a focus on Indigenous legal issues and those related to poverty.
Despite the losses of these fine folks, the Society is happy to welcome three new directors. Joining the board are former Merritt mayor Neil Menard, lawyer and the first ever director from Penticton Paul Varga, and Londea Riffel of Kamloops.
Along with Dr. Fike and the three new directors, the board now consists of Brad Alberts (vice-chair), Gina Dillon (secretary), Garry Limpright (treasurer), Murray Campbell, and Sean Monaghan.
For a look at the full AGM report, please visit https://askwellness.ca/about-ask/.
In 2017, Chelsea Johnnie was one year into a deep depression following the death of her mother. She began hanging out with the wrong crowd and found herself in a position she never expected to be in: battling addiction, struggling to raise her children, and not knowing how she was going to manage putting a roof over their heads.
During her depression following her mothers passing Johnnie says she would just stay home and sleep all day. She knew it wasn’t a healthy way to live but didn’t know what to do about it. Before she knew it, she was living a lifestyle didn’t ever think would be part of her story.
“I never thought I would be that person who hurt myself just from not dealing with any of my childhood traumas or unresolved issues in my life,” Johnnie says. “I think it had something to do with being around it growing up as well. Both of my mother and my father were alcoholics and I think it was more of a learned behaviour. That’s how they coped with their issues and I learned from them. It’s a bad cycle and it’s pretty amazing to see now that I’m sober and I’m glad that I’m able to deal with that now.”
Having become a mother at 16 years old, Johnnie feels a lot of her self-destructive behaviour came from not having much of a childhood herself. When she lost her mother she was not only angry about that loss, but she was also trying to reclaim some of that lost childhood. She now realizes she spent a lot of time trying to deal with it in all the wrong ways.
“I’m really happy I snapped out of it,” Johnnie says. “It took for something bad to happen though. I did end up in the hospital not long after my mom died because of my liver and my kidneys. I just totally abused substances and alcohol and I damaged my organs.”
With her mother having died of Cirrhosis of the liver, despite having quit drinking a year before her death, Johnnie found herself in that same path. After her own hospitalization, Johnnie was sober for about a year and a half. In that time, she gave birth to her third child. Despite her apparent recovery from addiction, old demons continued to plague her.
“I just mentally wasn’t in the right place,” she says. “Even though I had quit drinking I didn’t work on what was bothering me inside. That anger and pain was still there and I hadn’t dealt with it. I just went through the same emotional trauma all over again.”
That is when Johnnie was first introduced to the ASK Wellness Society and the Adult Addictions Supportive Housing Program (AASH). The goal of the program is to link people who are ready to manage their addiction and its causes with safe and affordable housing in which to live while completing the program. This is delivered in partnership with Interior Health’s Daily Addictions Recovery Program (DARP) and is offered in both Merritt and Kamloops.
In December of 2018 Johnnie’s mother-in-law knew somebody who had been through AASH before so she helped her get into the program. Though they lived in Lytton at the time, the pair had plans to both move to Merritt so Johnnie could go through the program while her mother-in-law was enrolled in school.
“We were going to do it together,” Johnnie says. “She was helping me get my life back on track. Then she got into a car accident and she passed away.”
The accident happened just one week after Johnnie began the AASH program so once again, devasted by losing somebody very close to her, Johnnie found herself reliving the cycle all over again.
“I was totally ashamed of myself after that,” she says. “I was totally embarrassed with the person I became. Like I had no control over my life. Addiction and alcoholism completely took over.”
She began couch surfing and found herself homeless in Kamloops then back to her hometown of Lytton. She would stay somewhere for a while but inevitably she would burn that bridge and need to move on to the next person who would be willing to help. The cycle continued.
“I was known and well respected in my community,” Johnnie says of her time before her battle with homelessness. “I just feel like people look at me now and people don’t look at me the same. Even to this day I know I don’t need to prove nothing to nobody because I’m doing good for myself but there are still people out there who just don’t believe in me and it hurts.”
Losing loved ones, beating addiction only to find herself wrapped up in it all over again, homeless, and running out of people to turn to. This is where the story ends for so many people. But there is something different about Johnnie, and she says what brought her out of the darkness is something her mother used to tell her.
“My mom, she always used to talk about breaking the cycle,” she says. “My mom and dad both went to residential school and even though they were alcoholics they did their best raising us and giving us the life they never had. Even though I grew up in a dysfunctional family my mom did her best raising us and I just want to make her proud.”
Johnnie re-enrolled in the DARP program but admits, even in her second attempt at it, she was not taking it seriously and continued to relapse for the first few months.
“I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t really want to feel all the emotions I would feel while I was sober.”
That’s when she began having issues with her kidneys again and was in pain every day.
“I was scared for my life, I was scared for my kids,” she says. “I didn’t want my kids to have to live without me had something bad happened just because I was selfish in my own ways trying to mask my feelings in the only way I know how.”
That is when something changed in Johnnie. One day she walked into the office of her AASH Life Skills Worker Brenda Major and basically said enough is enough.
“When she figured out that sobriety is what she really wanted, one day she came in and just said ‘I’m done’,” Major describes. “From that day forward, it was just change after change. She started going to NA meetings and AA meetings and really working the program for herself and ever since then she’s been sober. It just blew me out of the water.”
Even with the newfound commitment to her recovery, it was not without challenges. That is where having the support of somebody like Major played a key role in continuing down the path to sobriety.
“When she’d have moments, she would give me a call and say ‘Hey, I’m struggling right now I really just need to talk’,” Major recalls. “Then we’d go and do a one on one, which is part of our program as well, to go see them and have coffee with them and sit there and let them say what they need to say and support them.”
It was clear to Major that Johnnie’s children were her biggest inspiration to continue in her recovery.
“She wanted them to have a sober life and to see what it’s like to have sober parents,” she explains. “She wanted to make life fun so in the program we do bowling and swimming and all sorts of outdoor activities, she actually took that home and now she does those things with her kids. To me it was just amazing.”
Today, Johnnie is renting the apartment in Merritt which she was placed in as part of the AASH program with her kids. She says she is thankful for the support she has received not just from the ASK Wellness Society but also Interior Health, Lytton Restorative Justice, and all the other supports along the way.
“My patience finally paid off,” Johnnie says. “I’m here, I’ve got my home. A year ago I was homeless. I didn’t have a home, my family totally pushed me away, I burned all my bridges and nobody wanted to help me anymore because I was in my addiction and it was a sad thing to see. I know my family wanted to help but in reality there is nobody who can help you but yourself.”
Despite only being 27 years old and having gone through everything she has already, Johnnie says she knows life is short and does not want to waste any more time.
“Every day there’s a test,” she says. “I’m just getting tested every day and there’s something that pops up that’s just seeing if I’m really built for this life of being a mother and being who I need to be for my children.”
As for what Johnnie would say to somebody in her position just a few short years ago:
“Take in what other people have to say because they care enough to put in the time,” she says. “Give it your all. You’re the one who signed up so you have to put in your 100%. I feel like I wasn’t at the time and as soon as I started putting in 100% it was a beautiful feeling.”
How the Kindness of Strangers Saved a Man Who Lost All Hope
On a spring day in early March of this year, Dave Ashburn, 58, was out of money, prospects, and hope while he sat at an intersection in 100 Mile House looking out at the cars driving past on Highway 97. He was contemplating suicide and concluded that he had three options: two involved taking his own life and the third was asking for help.
“I chose to go to the psych ward instead,” he says. “I knew it was going to be a bit of a longer road. The other two were going to be quicker with one taking just a few seconds and the other taking about six minutes to bleed out. I chose curtain number three.”
Ashburn was brought to Kamloops on March 6th and admitted to One-South at Royal Inland Hospital where he spent eight days in the psychiatric ward. During that time, he was referred to the Surge housing program operated by the ASK Wellness Society and run out of Bridgeway Manor on Columbia St. Surge housing is intended to be short term (two to three months) housing for people who would otherwise be released from hospital into homelessness. The program part is of a partnership between the ASK Wellness Society and Interior Health.
Being from out of town, Ashburn was taken aback by the level of support he received beginning with the staff at One-South.
“The help I got from the social worker at the hospital, I think her name was Jenny … she was the one that did all the paperwork and had me set up in less than eight days,” he noted, commending the fast response to his needs. “She didn’t even take me on until the third or fourth day so she got me out of there in just a few days.”
Once at Surge, Ashburn had several aspects of his life he felt he needed to get on track before he could move forward. He would need help with filing his taxes, he had limited possessions, he needed to apply for additional government assistance funding, and he has mobility issues that impede him from being able to look for work.
“I worked for forty years and a lot of heavy work”, he says. “Oil rigs, transport truck tires, heavy warehouses. Basically, my chassis is worn out.”
While staff at the Surge program worked with Ashburn to stabilize and figure out what the next step would look like, an encounter with an ASK Wellness Society staff member doing her nightly rounds of the facility would provide a solution to his mobility issues.
He had created a wish list for himself of what kinds of things he needed to move forward with his life and on that list was a scooter, so it seemed like the universe was listening when one night ASK Wellness Scoiety Chief Operations Officer Kim Galloway stopped by and chatted with Dave.
“I said I think I’m going to try and find a used scooter on Kijiji or whatever,” he says, recalling his encounter with Galloway. “She says ‘Oh, you need a scooter’ I said ‘Yes’ so she called somebody right then and there as I was talking to her and she says ‘I’ve got somebody who needs a scooter’ and it was like bang.”
By the end of the next week the scooter donated by Mike and Dale Lehman of Pritchard (seen in photo) had made its way to Ashburn. The scooter was initially donated to the Lehman’s by the Turner family, also of Pritchard, but it was not going to be of much use to them so they reached out to the ASK Wellness Society to see if it could help anybody else.
“All they wanted was [enough] to cover the transportation cost,” says Ashburn.
Prior to getting the scooter, going anywhere was a challenge for Ashburn. Once he had it, he quickly found himself being able to do things that were a major struggle for him before.
“The first time I got to use it I was able to go to 7-11 and the Dollar Store and get all my shopping done,” he says.
Thanks to his own drive to move forward in life, as well as the added benefit of mobility, Ashburn has now transferred out the Surge housing program and into the Maverick; a transitional housing program with a focus on employment and connecting to community. While he is still trying to figure out exactly what the next stage of his life will look like, he says he hopes to do some volunteering and give back.
“I’m in that place where my mind tells me I can do it but my body says I can’t,” he says. “I have to find work that I enjoy and helps people and that I can do. I know because I am coming from a psych-ward I’m deemed a mental defect by society, but I have done a lot of stuff. I’ve done jobs that people get killed regularly and I came out with all my fingers and toes.”
Along with the ASK Wellness Scoiety and Interior Health, Ashburn notes that the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous have also helped him on his path to wellness.
For more information on the programs noted in this story and others offered by the ASK Wellness Society, please visit askwellness.ca.
Dave is a former journalist and wanted to use his writing skills to show his appreciation for the community that has helped lift him up. Please read his own words below:
I arrived in Kamloops on the fifth of March. Three days after by 58th birthday. Only six days later, I was told by a super busy and highly efficient social worker at the hospital that ASK Wellness could provide me with temporary housing.
Being told you have housing in one week was only the first of many surprises and support I have received in a very short time. To have someone say, “The paperwork is all done. Here are a couple things you need to do to complete the process”. That literally meant the world to me!
Doors were opening. I was suddenly right at the door step of the security and stability I had prayed for. Even during the initial on set of this COVID crisis I received more blessings. In no time at all I was able to get a doctor to continue my treatment for pain and depression. A kind man on the 100 Mile House Facebook site brought my belongings to Kamloops. I must add, he was on his way for some major tests at the hospital.
In a few short weeks, Jamie at Bridgeway Manor helped me clear up two years of taxes. Bringing me up to date so to speak. A couple weeks later she informs me I am a candidate for long term housing called the Maverick.
A day or two later, having a conversation with another ASK Wellness worker, Kim. I tell her some kind of scooter would help me get around. She got on the phone immediately and casually tells me a few minutes later. “I put the word out. Probably have one for you next week”. Sure enough less than ten days later I’m informed that a scooter is waiting for me at the Maverick where I’m now going to on the third day of June.
Thinking I will have to pay at least a few hundred dollars for it, I’m told. It was donated free of charge from some kind souls in Pritchard. The mobility and access to shopping it provides is priceless. Again, blessing from strangers.
When I think of where we I was at and how far I’m come in a little over three months here in Kamloops, I have to thank God for His Providence. Especially how IT is manifested in the actions of all the first responders, support staff and volunteers in the health care system, and the people that work and volunteer for ASK Wellness.