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.”
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.
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.