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.