MUSTARD SEED OFFERS HOPE AND WELLNESS
A day after Les H. decided to give the Mustard Seed a chance, he walked into the office of Deb Runnalls to offer a symbolic, if alarming, gesture. It was a pledge of sorts that he was ready to turn his life around.
“I put an 11-inch blade on her desk,” says Les, who asked that his last name not be used. “I walked into her office and gave her my knife. I always carried a knife on the street for years. I told her I was done.”
It was a powerful gesture, although perhaps not entirely unique for Runnalls. As Mustard Seed’s director of housing, she often collected knives and other weapons from potential clients at the front door to give to police, who would pick them up once a month. (“I had one guy bring in these great big garden shears,” she reports.)
Still, it marked the beginning of a long, if occasionally rocky, journey Les has had with Mustard Seed, a Christian-based organization that helps people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
Les reckons he visited Mustard Seed eight times before deciding it was for him. After serving six years in prison for a string of armed robberies, Les spent two or three years living in hotel rooms and on other’s people’s couches in Calgary. A friend kept suggesting he give Mustard Seed a try. Les would walk in and then walk right out again.
“For one thing, I thought they would beat you over the head with a Bible when you walked in the door,” he says. “I’m not a Bible person. That was one thing. Another thing was that I didn’t want to be labelled as homeless, a street person. I used to look down on them at one time, people bumming change. I’d tell them to get a job even though I was out selling dope or doing something illegal myself. It was just totally different from prison.”
But when Les met Runnalls “something just clicked.” While the 56-year-old admits he was still struggling with a heroin addiction at the time, he moved into a communal, affordable housing unit overseen by Mustard Seed in 2007. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He says Runnalls has kicked him out twice “for fighting and selling weed.”
“I loved her for it because I deserved it both times,” he says. “So yeah, I just seen a place where I was pretty sure I could get some help. I’ve never been big on asking for help. I pretty well tried to do everything the wrong way myself since I was a kid. So I told her I’d give it a month.”
That was nearly a decade ago and Les has been involved with the Mustard Seed, off and on, ever since. A heroin addict since he was 15, Les successfully completed a program at the Simon House Recovery Centre and hasn’t used for four years. Sixteen months ago, he moved into his own apartment at the 1010 Centre, the Mustard Seed’s affordable housing complex that opened in 2014.
In 2010, Les lost a kidney to cancer. He is diabetic, has Crohn’s disease and is waiting for knee surgery. So the Mustard Seed’s Wellness Centre, which opened last year and operates on the ground floor of the 1010 Centre, is a convenient addition to his life.
The Mustard Seed is one of 12 agencies that will benefit from this year’s Calgary Herald Christmas Fund. The money it receives will go toward hiring a full-time nurse for the Wellness Centre. The centre has three advocates — who help clients with getting proper identification, finances, housing, employment, accessing the food bank and other referrals. There is also an occupational therapist, an addictions counsellor and a psychologist. It partners with other agencies such as CUPS, which provides doctors two half-days a week to the centre. Nursing and social work students and graduate-level students doing their eight-month counselling practicums serve the centre. Chiropractors, physiotherapists and massage therapists volunteer their time as well. But a nurse is necessary to take on some of the workload, says Boris Lesar, the centre’s psychologist and clinical director.
“We have a lot of clients with complex physical and mental health needs,” he says. “There’s a significant need for providing supports for those clients, here in this building and in the community as well. That position is going to be crucial to relieve some of the work that our doctors are doing. They are swamped.”
Along with the housing units and Wellness Centre, Mustard Seed also operates its Foothills Emergency Shelter, which has capacity for 370 adults.
While Les has never used the shelter himself, he does visit friends there. He also volunteers his time at the Seed’s food bank and will soon start working in shipping and receiving for the organization. He also tells his story as part of the Mustard Seed’s DemoCrew, where youth come to spend five days working and learning about homelessness, poverty and social justice issues.
While he hopes to get his own place by June, he wants to continue volunteering for Mustard Seed. Les’s mother died when he was only 11 months old, which started a life of distrust as he found himself trapped and institutionalized in group homes, foster homes, orphanages and finally prison.
“I haven’t had my own place in 30-some years,” he says. “I’m not so sure I’ll make it. I just think I’m more ready. But when I do move out, I still need to come here. I need to do the DemoCrew. I can’t just go and never come back here. I will have to or else it won’t work.”
The Calgary Herald Christmas Fund supports 12 local agencies addressing social issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, isolation, education and violence. All proceeds raised from donations go to these organizations.
Deb Runnalls, Mustard Seed director of housing, right, and client Les H. share smiles. Les estimates he visited Mustard Seed eight times before committing. When he met Runnalls, “something just clicked.”