Halfway to good

There are moments in our lives that confirm who we are.

I like to think I’m compassionate and caring. But my brand of compassion and care has limits. I’m reminded of my limitations when I’m around people who don’t have any. Like my friend Sandy.

We know each other from book club and we were both volunteers one week at a community meal—a free dinner for anyone in the community who needs it for any reason.

As much as I enjoyed volunteering at community meals—they always went a long way toward putting my own life in perspective—I found the cleaning up part of the experience a bit icky. Chatting, delivering food: wonderful. Collecting plates and cups: not so much.

As hard as I tried to avoid cold bits of mashed potato and gravy on the side of the plate, invariably one of my fingers would land in it. There is some quality in mashed potatoes that once cold, they seem extra cold and the texture becomes paste. Gravy coagulates. Enough said.

Cold gravy and mashed potatoes cling to warm fingers like flood victims to rescuers when they’re plucked off a roof.

So as I walked to the dirty-dish cart, half-eaten gravy and mashed potatoes seeping into my pores, I  hustled to grab a clean napkin, emanating a silent scream until the offending particles were removed.

(To be clear, I don’t collect the dirty plates of family members for the same reason.

It takes everything I have to keep it together and not perform my shake-it-off dance, which resembles “the worm” except in a vertical position. Given my aversion to half-eaten dinners touching any part of my body, it’s not surprising that I’m not always the most helpful person in the room during a crisis, big or small.)

At that night’s meal a couple who were regulars came even though the husband was too ill to eat. He came anyway because he didn’t want his wife to miss out. It must have been torture for him to sit there while his stomach sailed the Seven Seas with all that food around and no refuge from hot smells coming from the kitchen.

He made it to the end of the meal before his nausea took over and sent him into convulsions of vomit at the table.

The minute I heard the sounds of retching I was running the other way as fast as Usain Bolt after hearing a starter pistol. Stay back and don’t look. That was my strategy because someone throwing up is the kind of scenario where I end up needing more attention than the sick person. Vomit makes me vomit and blood makes me queasy, a little fainty, and a little vomity.

So as I stood nervously shifting from one foot to the other along the back wall like a Grade 7 at a dance, Sandy got a bowl. She sat next to him and rubbed his back in a moment of gentleness, kindness and humanity.

When I first saw her I thought, “What is she doing!? Is she crazy? Norwalk virus! Get out of there!”

But as I watched Sandy talk to him between bouts of retching and treat him with dignity and respect, I saw what is possible.

It is a moment that has come to define her for me. Sandy is plenty of other things too—funny, gracious, and generous—but that image of her rubbing a sick man’s back is what I see when I look at her.

When I brought it up with Sandy she remembered the incident but hadn’t thought of it since. I think of it often.

I will never be like Sandy. I will never be the person who brings a bowl and chats casually in the midst of violent illness.

But I hope to be defined by the moments I ran to and not away from.


In memory of a giant

When I see Nellie McClung’s face (surrounded by men) on the new $10 bill or I pass the Jenny Trout or Emily Murphy centres in Stratford I wonder what it would have been like to know these giants.

These pioneers moved us all forward—some of us kicking and screaming. These are women who bravely persevered in the face of opposition and obstacles. They did what needed to be done. Their accomplishments are not just history to be summed up in a Heritage Minute.

These women, the gutsy ones, still roll up their sleeves and propel us all forward. They inspire us to do better.

Florence Kehl was one of those women. Her legacy may not be turned into a one-minute Canadian history lesson but when I drive by House of Blessing I will remember her and think, “I knew that giant.”

Flo died unexpectedly on January 3. She was 76.

More than 30 years ago Flo went to Hamilton to see what was being done for people facing poverty in that city. She got home and told her husband Norman she wanted to start a community-based organization that would provide food and clothing to people who needed it in Stratford. He told her to go for it. They put up their savings to build House of Blessing.

What she started has become the city’s social conscience.

“You have no idea what people are going through when they walk through the doors,” she said when I interviewed her for The Beacon Herald in 2013. “Even when they’re miserable and difficult to deal with, you don’t know what they’re going through so you try to treat them with respect.”

That was her mantra and because of that, House of Blessing has been a place of refuge and respect for people who need it most.

Flo retired from House of Blessing in 2010 but it will always be associated with its founder. In years to come residents who fall on hard times will be able to count on House of Blessing to send them home with food, a prom dress, an outfit to got to an interview, and some kindness in a world unforgiving of “failure.”

At every meeting I had with her, first professionally and later personally, I was touched by her infinite kindness, her easy laugh, and her confidence in me.

When I think of Flo, I think of the custodian who worked at House of Blessing more than a decade ago. On the surface this anecdote doesn’t sound like it’s about Flo but really it is. Just a couple of years into my journalism career in Stratford I was offered the chance to explore what it meant to be homeless in the city. Me and a small group of other community members were each given an identity and were told to see if we could get shelter.

I was supposed to be a young mom with two kids who was suddenly out on the street and out in the cold. We were given $5 and that was it. I asked people working in local businesses what I should do and every time they told me to call House of Blessing.

That was significant. It spoke to the reputation of House of Blessing and to the high profile it enjoyed because of the work done there and because of Flo. I walked around for hours and I didn’t call because I knew House of Blessing doesn’t have beds.

I also refused to call any other agency that wasn’t recommended to me. I knew what services were available because of my job but I figured if I was a young mom who suddenly found herself on the street, I might not know where to get help.

I did call a few other organizations which were eventually suggested to me but they were closed or, in the case of one of them, I didn’t fit the criteria.

It was amazing to me how quickly my confidence eroded and how lonely I felt. And cold. I knew it was all pretend but I was not prepared for the shame and how quickly it began to feel real.

I finally called House of Blessing because it had been recommended so many times. It was late and it was closed but the custodian answered the phone anyway.

He was genuinely concerned for me and talked to me for about 15 or 20 minutes. He suggested some phone numbers to try but if nothing materialized he urged me to call back.

I called back a few minutes later and he was beside himself. The idea that a young mother with two kids would be out in the cold at night with nowhere to go was unthinkable to him.  I may not remember correctly but I think he had called his wife. I know he was prepared to arrange for me to get to his home until I could talk to social services.

My heart sank. He was so invested in my wellbeing. Now I had to come clean—I wasn’t homeless, I wasn’t a young mom, I was a reporter. I felt awful but he was very forgiving, though a little confused.

I don’t want to take anything away from the custodian who is clearly a wonderful human being, but I think that the sense of responsibility toward others and the desire to help comes from the culture Flo built at House of Blessing.

Because it was built on Flo and Norm’s money it was also built on their ideals and their ideals had no restrictions.

The kindness I received from the custodian is Flo’s legacy. Flo did her best for everyone and it was contagious.

Five minutes in Flo’s presence and I wanted to be a better person and I know I’m not alone. Every conversation started with a warm embrace and ended with the same.

She was a devoted Christian and her faith was a part of each endeavor she took on. She modeled the answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For Flo the answer was undoubtedly yes, and your sister’s keeper, and your neighbours’ keeper, and any stranger who crossed your path.

In those of us who knew her she ignited compassion. The object now, is to keep that flame lit.

A hand up for a sister

Sometimes you meet someone who has had such a good idea you expect it will endure, like the wheel or light bulbs.

When Judith Sept moved from Toronto to Stratford (Ontario) in 2006 she brought a brilliant idea with her. It’s called the Basketeer program. Women are encouraged to buy a laundry basket and fill it with themed items like bedroom and beauty products or kitchen essentials.

The baskets go to women’s emergency shelters like Optimism Place and Huron Women’s Shelter, and second-stage housing like The Emily Murphy Centre. They are given to women who are primarily invisible and have suffered violence at the hands of people they loved.

What a revolutionary idea.

The kids get presents because there is no end to the organizations that collect toys and raise money. It feels good to help kids. But the mothers aren’t even on the radar—it’s a terrible continuation of the invisibility and isolation many of these women suffered while living in a home filled with violence.

These are women, particularly at The Emily Murphy Centre, who are about to take steps back into a world that has not always been kind, to say the least. A world that has been consistently indifferent and at best not terribly helpful.

So these baskets are about them. It acknowledges the sacrifices mothers so often make for their kids. The basket says to women who have been unseen, “we see you.”

The “we” is a nameless and faceless group of women who stuff laundry baskets full of the basics like shampoo and soap as well “luxury items” like mascara or a spa gift certificate.

The book club I belong to, Penney’s Pages, is one of many groups that has been participating in the Basketeer Program for several years now. We pick a theme or two and then go shopping.

Penney’s Pages members, from left, Joanne, Mary, Carole, Laura, Carol and Cindy on basket drop-off day. Photo: Christy Bertrand.

This is the moment when we ask ourselves what it would be like to be lonely and scared and the only responsible adult for our kids. What would we miss if we had nothing? A soft blanket, lip gloss, a book. It may sound frivolous but it’s not. It’s the smallest form of justice.

While her abuser is out socializing with friends, getting coffee at Tim Hortons, and possibly spending good money on something stupid like those testicle ornaments that hang from truck hitches, she’s hidden away in a locked facility, trying to put her life back together. She’s trying to feel worthy and normal. And with any luck good enough. Good enough to avoid the kind of man who denies her freedom and resources. Who beats or rapes her or both and makes her feel small.

And while she does all that, there’s a basket that represents a group of women who are cheering her on. Women she doesn’t know and to whom she need not ever feel beholden. The basket and everything in it is free in the truest sense.

Eleven years on and the program continues, only now it’s organized by a new dynamo, Christy Bertrand. Thank goodness for that because the shelters in Stratford are typically full or close to it and I suspect that’s the case in communities across Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if this program blossomed beyond the 14 communities participating and landed in every city and town with a shelter?

Anne McDonnell, executive director at Optimism Place, and Lisa Wilde, executive director of  The Emily Murphy Centre, have been on the front lines for decades. It’s fair to say they’ve seen it all and in abundance.

One story Lisa can’t forget is when a woman got her basket and just sobbed. The woman confided she had never had a pillow that she didn’t have to share and that was brand new.

A pillow. I have trouble sharing blankets.

And to be really honest if a pillow was one of my Christmas gifts it would get tossed aside in the same way I chucked new underwear out of my stocking when I was four. My life is full of the kind of entitlement in which necessities are expected but don’t pass muster as gifts.

We have become so satisfied with doing the bare minimum. Women who have been subjected to violence and find an empty bed at a shelter are expected to be grateful. While executive directors across the province try to get more money and operate more programs.

For this we need not wait on government funding, that may never materialize. This program is about women doing more. This is about us saying we believe you and you’re not to blame.

I don’t care if she went back 12 times before she had the courage to leave for good. I don’t care if she knew he was jealous and put on makeup before going to the bar—he’s responsible for his own behaviour let’s get that straight. I don’t care if she was a drug user or never smoked a cigarette in her life. None of it matters.

What I care about is second chances. As women we have more power than we realize. We have incomes, we have connections, we talk, and some of us have brilliant ideas that are carried on by people with the guts to try and the faith that other women will step up.

If the system does not fail her and her abuser goes to jail, that’s a little bit more justice. But it won’t amount to the kind of time she’s already spent in a jail without oversight, a lawyer, a complaints process, guaranteed food, guaranteed medical attention, and her own pillow.

To learn more or start a program in your community check out https://basketeers.org/about.

Something to celebrate with a side of cake

I love cake. I love it more than sunshine and puppies.

I love the way cake looks—perfectly round with strawberries arranged decoratively on the top or shaved chocolate on the sides. I love the surprise of a layer of custard, or fruit, or cream between the sponge. It’s like a present.

Cake is the least pretentious, non-everyday food ever. It’s also the most celebratory. Big events like birthdays, weddings, retirements, all require cake.

Tucking in. The other cake judges didn’t stand a chance. (Photo: Carol Hamilton).

I went through a really lonely, cakeless period in my thirties. I was living in a crummy basement apartment with floor tiles so old they had begun to disintegrate. I was in a relatively new community, my relationship had imploded, and I spent my weekends creating errands for myself so I wouldn’t be home.

What I missed the most during that time was having a birthday cake and people to eat it with. Cake is the manifestation of joy shared with the people you love.

That’s why I was ridiculously excited to be a judge in a gourmet chocolate cake contest this past weekend. I wish with all my heart and soul that Cake Judge was a real job title and that it was my real job.

The event was a fundraiser for Change Her World—a small NGO based in Stratford, Ontario that works out of northern Malawi.

It was started by two go-getters, Linda Willis, a retired teacher, and Carol Hamilton, a nurse, after a mission trip to the region.

They were stunned by what they saw, particularly in the north of Malawi. It’s physically challenging to get there due to a lack of infrastructure and, unremarkably, government funds don’t seem to make it there either.

On that trip the pair passed the remains of big NGOs—the ones that can afford heart-wrenching commercials on TV—that had packed up and left. The buildings were abandoned along with the hopes of the community.

Linda and Carol decided to consult with community members and build an infrastructure for girls’ education themselves. No waiting, no dithering, no asking if it would be worth it. Their organization, Change Her World, is a roll-up-your-sleeves, dining-room-table operation. They mean business.

This gutsy duo stepped out from their comfortable lives and took a risk. They put their reputations on the line. It could have failed quickly and it could have failed publicly but they pushed on anyway because they believed their passion would be contagious.

As Linda and Carol sold their idea to other women in Canada, they asked the families of girls in Malawi to take a chance on them. Linda and Carol gave these girls an opportunity to reach for a future their mothers couldn’t have dreamed of and they took it. The girls show up first thing in the morning and they study by candlelight well into the night.

Linda and Carol have learned how to negotiate with politicians and pack a shipping container. They’ve bought uniforms and paid school fees. They’ve renovated schools that were too dilapidated for boys, but considered adequate for girls. They’ve gone further than anyone else with fewer resources.

Linda and Carol have put girls through elementary, high school and in some cases university. The first young woman to graduate university started as just another girl with nothing, and in danger of marrying too soon and raising more girls with nothing. She’s coming back to her community with something—a degree and choices—and she’s coming back a somebody.

She will be the Haley Wickenheiser or Roberta Bondar of her community. She is a walking billboard; it can be done.

And Linda and Carol are our beacon to forge boldly ahead, to speak up and speak out. And to take action at our own dining room tables.

That’s a whole lot to celebrate. Bring on the cake.

To read about the amazing achievements of Linda and Carol go to changeherworld.ca.