Suc­cess sto­ries

Calgary Herald - - Context - ALLEN CAMERON

Jes­sica Szrubec and Chaz Smith may or may not have crossed paths over the years — what are the chances in a city where it’s es­ti­mated up to 1,000 kids are home­less? — but there is much to their re­spec­tive life sto­ries that links them.

They both came from bro­ken homes, with sub­stance-abus­ing par­ents. They both found them­selves home­less for most of their teenage years.

And they both hated Christ­mas.

“Christ­mas is a time of fam­ily and com­mu­nity, giv­ing and get­ting,” says Smith, now 20. “I al­ways hated it. I didn’t have fam­ily. I didn’t have the idea of Christ­mas in our cul­ture.”

“I didn’t re­ally want to be around any­body,” adds Szrubec, a con­stantly smil­ing 18-yearold. “That’s ex­actly how I felt. I wanted it to be over.”

To­day? Thanks largely to com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions aided in part by the Cal­gary Her­ald Christ­mas Fund, both Szrubec and Smith have put their lives back to­gether. They’re healthy. They have homes. They have a fu­ture.

And they can’t wait for Christ­mas.

Here’s a look at how they got there, with a lit­tle help from folks in the com­mu­nity who do­nate to the Christ­mas Fund.

“Oh my gosh, where do I start?”

Jes­sica Szrubec ner­vously plays with an elas­tic band as she gath­ers her thoughts. She’s sit­ting in an of­fice at the McMan Youth, Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices’ Kens­ing­ton lo­ca­tion, try­ing to fig­ure out the best way to sum up a child­hood that went so wrong, largely through no fault of her own.

The dates are mixed up; she’s not sure if things started go­ing sour when she was 11 or 13.

But she knows this: she wouldn’t wish it on any­one. And she also knows that were it not for a fam­ily friend help­ing her get in touch with McMan, her life quite likely would have con­tin­ued to take a se­ries of wrong turns.

“I don’t know (where she would be with­out McMan),” she says. A pause. “I’ve asked my­self that ques­tion mil­lions of times, and I don’t know. I don’t think it would be good. I re­ally don’t even want to think about it.”

She left home for good not long af­ter her al­co­holic mother did; Szrubec and her sis­ter were left to be cared for by their fa­ther, who sim­ply couldn’t cope with the sit­u­a­tion.

“When my mom left my dad, he was like, ‘OK, what do I do?’ ” re­calls Szrubec. “And my sis­ter and I were like, ‘What do WE do?’ I was young. I was too young for that.”

So Szrubec started stay­ing at friends’ houses to es­cape the sit­u­a­tion, and be­gan a cy­cle of mov­ing from house to house, with an oc­ca­sional group home in the mix, that would last for years.

She stopped go­ing to school af­ter com­plet­ing Grade 9; mainly, she says, be­cause she sim­ply couldn’t han­dle the stress.

“I just didn’t want to get up in the morn­ing,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t have money to buy books, I didn’t have a back­pack — it just wasn’t good. It was tough.”

And there were low points — lots of them, when she won­dered whether it was worth go­ing on.

“And I still have those feel­ings,” she says, qui­etly. “Just from think­ing about the past, and how I could have done this or that. Why my par­ents were like that. Why did I have to go through it. Why, why, why. But then you look at lit­tle kids in Africa, and you’re like, ‘Why’ for them. So you just have to push through it. I re­al­ize that if I had given up, I wouldn’t be here to­day. You just can’t give up.”

The turn­ing point was get­ting in touch with McMan Youth, Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices, a multi-faceted or­ga­ni­za­tion that has helped home­less youth for three decades.

For Szrubec, that meant a place­ment in Welling­ton Place, a group home for home­less youth.

From there, she was tran­si­tioned into the Hope Homes pro­gram, which finds more per­ma­nent homes for the youth with peo­ple in the com­mu­nity who have room for them, and re­ceive fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from McMan in re­turn.

She moved in with what she de­scribed as to­tal strangers in the Og­den area a cou­ple of years ago, and soon dis­cov­ered that not only did she have a place to live, she truly had a home.

That point was ham­mered home the moment that she was fi­nally to put a poster up in her bed­room (Kanye West, for the record).

“This is my room,” she re­mem­bers think­ing at the time. “This is go­ing to be per­ma­nent, un­less I want to leave (in­stead of be­ing told to leave).

“Christ­mas was a lit­tle bit tough be­fore. But the peo­ple I’m liv­ing with now have made it bet­ter. They’re so cool; they were com­plete strangers, and now I call them my guardian an­gels.”

With a per­ma­nent home came a sense of op­ti­mism about the fu­ture. Szrubec is back in school, en­rolled in the CBE’s Dis­cov­er­ing Choices pro­gram, from which she ex­pects to grad­u­ate with her high school diploma in the next year or so.

As well, things are bet­ter with her fam­ily; in fact, she’ll be spend­ing Christ­mas Day with her mother (now a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic) and grand­par­ents.

“I def­i­nitely am (op­ti­mistic),” she says. “I’m glad that I’m not on the same path as my par­ents; I love them, but ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what I went through be­cause of their prob­lems, I don’t think I would ever turn out that way be­cause I wouldn’t want my kids to go through it.”

And now, in­stead of be­ing the per­son in need of as­sis­tance, she’s giv­ing it out her­self to friends; she re­cently re­ferred her best friend to the McMan Hope Homes pro­gram.

“She’s had a re­ally tough life, too — al­most like mine,” says Szrubec. “Nowhere to go, stuff like that. So I was like, OK, se­ri­ously? You need to go to Hope Homes. She loves it, and I’m so glad, be­cause she gets to ex­pe­ri­ence the same thing I ex­pe­ri­enced.

“I fi­nally feel . . . I feel safe.”

Chaz Smith will never for­get the first night he spent at Av­enue 15.

More ac­cu­rately, he’ll never for­get the cir­cum­stances that led to him spend­ing the night at the Boys and Girls Club of Cal­gary’s youth shel­ter.

In his early teens, Smith strug­gled to keep some sem­blance of a nor­mal life, but af­ter his par­ents di­vorced when he was 11, it was nearly a lost cause.

Some­times he lived at home with his dad, but he also spent time at his grand­par­ents’, and in lo­cal youth shel­ters when times got re­ally tough.

But his first night at Av­enue 15 was also the last night he spent at home.

“My dad and I got into an ar­gu­ment, and he just got re­ally mad at me,” re­calls Smith. “He dragged me out of my bed­room, dragged me down a flight of stairs and threw me out­side. I had no shoes on, no jacket. I had nowhere to go. I didn’t have any food, any cloth­ing; I couldn’t even shower. Com­ing here (af­ter po­lice took him home to get some cloth­ing, and then dropped him off at Av­enue 15) filled those needs.

“I re­mem­ber my first night, one of the staff mem­bers stayed awake with me all night. I talked to her, I cried, and she just lis­tened.”

He got through that night, but was in and out of shel­ters for the next cou­ple of years. He strug­gled with drugs, at­tempted sui­cide “lots of times,” and de­scribes one of his low­est points as the stretch he spent shar­ing a tent with his sis­ter on Prince’s Is­land one sum­mer af­ter be­ing kicked out of a shel­ter for us­ing drugs.

“I re­mem­ber bathing in the river,” he says. “We cooked ev­ery­thing on our firepit, and we learned lit­tle tricks, like if you put can­dle wax on a fire, it’ll stay lit longer. Dif­fer­ent things like that.”

Through it all, though, he could al­ways count on Av­enue 15 to be a haven when he truly needed it.

The turn­around came a cou­ple of years ago, he says.

“I was still us­ing, and I hit a low point,” he re­calls. “I was in a sphere where I knew I was go­ing to lose my apart­ment. I was anorexic-skinny. I had no heat, no elec­tric­ity; I had an ex­ten­sion cord out through my win­dow plugged into the side of the build­ing so I could use a lit­tle heater. But I had ab­so­lutely noth­ing. And I re­mem­ber at that moment I just fell to the ground. I need help, I need God’s help, I need some­thing to help me. And that was the defin­ing moment when I re­al­ized things had changed.”

Since then, he has kicked drugs and turned his life com­pletely around. He’s still a reg­u­lar at Av­enue 15, but in­stead of be­ing a client, he’s an em­ployee, work­ing as a prep cook in the kitchen. And, yes, he sees kids all the time who re­mind him of him­self, four or five years ago, and he tries to talk to them.

“They tell me, ‘You don’t un­der­stand, you don’t know what it’s like,’ ” he says with a wry smile. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah. (Pause). I do. I know what it’s like.’

And now, in­stead of dread­ing Christ­mas, he’s look­ing for­ward to it. He’ll spend part of the hol­i­day sea­son with the staff and clients of Av­enue 15 in ad­di­tion to spend­ing time with a fam­ily he thought he’d never see again.

It’s been a long jour­ney from that first night he spent at Av­enue 15.

“If places like this didn’t ex­ist, where would the kids be? Where would they go?” says Smith. “Kids need a safe place to stay; it’s a right. They should have a safe place to stay, food, cloth­ing, a shower, a kind per­son to talk to. And it’s all here.

“At the end of a day of work­ing here, I feel a sense of pur­pose, and that I’ve done some­thing im­por­tant, to give back.”

Dean Bick­nell, Cal­gary Her­ald

Jes­sica Szrubec has been in­volved with McMan Youth, Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices for some time. She is now back in school and is mak­ing ef­forts to re­con­nect with her fam­ily.

Dean Bick­nell, Cal­gary Her­ald

Chaz Smith is a for­mer client of the Av­enue 15 shel­ter. The agency helped him turn his life around and now he works at the fa­cil­ity, which is funded by Boys & Girls Clubs of Cal­gary.

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