Monday, July 30, 2007

Forgiviness is a river at the Drop-In

He hasn't spoken to her in 12 years. He doesn't know if she's alive. He doesn't know where she lives. It's been twelve years since she moved and didn't leave a forwarding address. She had to do it. After years of trying, years of crying, she knew she couldn't stop his drug-addicted behaviours from destroying his life. To keep them from destroying hers she had to detach.

Tough thing for a mother to do. Courageous. I wonder how she feels. To not know for all those years what was happening to him. To not know if he was alive or dead. To carry the pain. To wonder if she could have done anything different. If she'd only... and then to remind herself, I cannot change the past and then to move on with the ache in her heart, always there, easing a bit, but always there. I wonder how she feels. I can only imagine. I cannot know.

He came into my office late last week and said, his voice strong, his hands steady, "I'd like to write that letter now. Is that room available for me to use?" I nodded my head. I wasn't sure I could speak. It was a big moment.

Earlier in the week he'd come into my office, his ego bruised from an encounter with a couple of clients which led to a difficult situation for him. We'd talked through the drama. He'd got it straight in his head what had gone wrong. Where he was wronged and where he had wronged another in the process. He knew what he wanted to do to make it 'right'. He was committed to doing the right thing.

He was getting ready to leave my office when he blurted out. "I want to write a letter to my mom. I'm afraid to do it."

"And you're afraid because...?" I asked.

"I haven't had contact with her in 12 years. Last time I saw her, I stole from her." He shrugs his shoulders, a flicker of angst flits across his face as memory surfaces. "I caused her a lot of pain." Tears well up in his eyes.

I wait.

"She doesn't know if I'm alive or dead." He pauses. "I don't know if she's alive or dead. She's in her 70s. She had to move. She was scared of me.... I don't blame her. I was scared of me back then. I was a scary guy."

He looks at me from where he sits in the blue chair on the other side of my desk, his slim hands clasped between his knees. He throws his head back. He looks at the ceiling. He sighs. "I want to tell her I'm alive. I want to tell her I'm sorry. I want to tell her so many things and I'm scared. I'm 41 years old and I'm scared of my mom." He looks at me. "What should I do?"

"What's in your heart."

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Yesterday, after a lifetime running from the truth, a courageous man conquered his fear. He wrote the letter he's been avoiding since getting sober a year and a half ago.

I went in to see him after a couple of hours. He'd just finished. He sat at a table along the window. The view looks out across the river valley to the tree covered hillside beyond. Houses peeked out from amidst the greenery. The sky above was crystal clear blue. His blue eyes were cloudy with tears. "I didn't know it would be so hard," he said. A tear falls onto the page in front of him. He laughs. "I'm such a cry-baby."

"I see you as a courageous man."

He looks down at the folded pages in front of him. He picks them up. Holds them out to me. "Here. Read it. Tell me if I said the right thing."

I hesitate to step into his private space. "Did you write from your heart?" He nods his head. "You've said the right thing."

He holds the letter closer towards me, like a penitent holding onto a rosary. "Please?"

I take a breath and reach for the letter. "I'd be honoured."

I try not to cry. I try not to let my emotions attach themselves to the words on the page. I don't have a script for this. I don't have a guidebook telling me what to do. What to say. My eyes fill with tears. I can't stop them. The beauty of his spirit shines through every pain-filled word on the page.

I finish the letter. His eyes never stop watching my face. I hand the letter back to him. "Thank you."

He looks surprised. "Thank you?"

"We all need forgiveness for things we've done. I once hurt my daughters enormously. I thought I'd forgiven myself, but I forgot. Forgiveness is a river. It is always flowing and sometimes, I need to dip into it to refresh myself. I've never had happen to me what happened to you. But your letter gave me the gift of knowing, whatever happens in life, whatever I do, forgiveness always opens the door to my heart."

"Do you think I should send it? What if she doesn't care? I mean, I know why she turned her back on me, but what if she just doesn't want to know what's happened in my life?"

"Mother's always care. She may have been forced to turn away, she may have had to do what she did to keep herself safe, but a mother never closes the door to her heart. Love for a child can never be shut off."

He looks at me. Glances back out at the trees and houses across the river. The cerulean arc soaring above. "I need to do the right thing."

I nod my head in agreement.

He doesn't know if she's alive or dead. She hasn't known of his whereabouts for 12 years. We google the town where he last knew she lived. His uncle still lives there. He writes a note to his uncle on the outside of the letter. Dear Uncle M. Please get this to my mother. I love her. I love you. He signs his name and tucks the letter inside another envelope addressed to his uncle.

Somewhere in a post office a letter sits in a pile of letters waiting to board the plane that will carry it to its destination. It is searching for a mother's heart. Hoping it is still beating in time and in love.

An ending. A beginning. He doesn't know the outcome. The outcome isn't what makes the difference. Regardless of his fear that he may be too late to find her, or that she will or will not be willing to read his letter, he's done the right thing. Another regret falls to the ground and he takes another step through the fear that was holding him back on his journey.

In life, we are always called to do the right thing. Sometimes, fear, anger, sadness, sorrow, grief and a host of other emotions limit our ability to step with courage into our fear and set ourselves free. To create new beginnings, we must begin at the end where we left off. We must do the right thing to step beyond that place where fear would tell us to do nothing. To do the right thing, as this courageous man taught me that day, we must be fearless.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

CTI: Learning leads to expanded horizons

Written by: Erika Barootes, CTI Instructor

When the words Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre or shelter are mentioned, people often have an impulse reaction to “homeless people”, or “lazy” individuals. That adverse reaction is a stereotype that does not correlate to a majority of the clients. This is especially judgmental concerning those who enroll and complete the Career Training Initiative (CTI) program at the Drop-In. These individuals are anything but lazy. They are determined to better themselves and their career paths by dedicating three straight weeks of full-time instruction and work to the program. The benefits of graduating from CTI are seen as priceless and our past graduates are living proof of this.

The CTI program is a relatively new addition to the Drop-In’s list of available programs and courses created to assist individuals in obtaining the skills necessary to get back on their feet and support themselves for the remainder of their lives. The concept was developed and put into action by Bruno Gagne in February of 2005. CTI is forever ongoing and an on the rise curriculum. CTI consists of 3 components; life skills, computer skills, and industrial certifications, all of which are mandatory assets in today’s workforce.

During the three-week cycle with CTI the students receive problem solving/conflict skills, in addition to other workshops that assist them in keeping their cool and in-turn aid them in sustaining a job. The computer knowledge they gain through CTI allows them to independently update their resumes and search for jobs online, something that is crucial in today’s technologically advanced world. Finally, the most popular reason for the clientele’s interest in the program; the industrial certifications we provide. A vast majority of employers deem it necessary for employees to have the certifications that our students receive for free. The CTI program offers our students these courses simply for being enrolled in our program.

The popularity for long-term employment appeals to our students and they have only expressed positive feedback when asked about the relationship between finding permanent placement and the CTI program. Regardless of if he or she has found himself or herself long-term employment or not, the CTI graduates convey the qualities to eventually find that in their lives and understand that it is not an overnight process. It is always nice to have new applications from individuals that heard of the program through a friend whom was a past graduate. One of our past grads recommended it to his sibling and the sibling was accepted into the program as well. Both individuals were hardworking and have vivid personalities, which is something an instructor will always look forward to in a classroom setting. Since their graduations both are doing quite well and have kept in touch with the CTI staff, updating on their current life and employment status. One is working full-time at a warehouse and is really enjoying the crew and the stability of more permanent employment. The other, who is a more recent graduate, is currently in the process of applying and interviewing for prospective employment in the field of fork lifting, just one of the CTI certifications offered.

CTI Clients can range from as young as sixteen years old to seventy-five, depending on the individual. On average our students are between thirty-five and forty-five years of age. In general, our clientele is on a relatively broad spectrum where age, race, sex, and education levels range to the extremes. The CTI program instructs students with ESL, ones with learning disabilities as well as those with limited education (i.e.: none or little high school). The program is all about the focus of the future; this is done through overcoming obstacles in order to move forward. The CTI instructors take whatever means necessary in order to adapt the programs curriculum or teaching methods in order for every student to feel comfortable and able to participate in all activities.

The process is quite straightforward. The potential students fill out an application form, we evaluate it and if he or she fit the profile for the program, we invite them for an interview. Once we have completed all interviews we select the twelve best fitted applicants for the program. We then notify these individuals of their acceptance.

After the three weeks, we celebrate with a graduation ceremony. This is the most rewarding experience as a teacher. Having the students’ thank you for “all that you have done” is more rewarding than one can envision. The simple little words “You and the CTI have changed me life” fill you with warmth. At the graduation ceremony the valedictorian, which is selected by the students, is asked to say a few word. At a recent CTI graduation the entire class chose to say a few words about what they took away from the program. The consensus was that all aspects of the program are valuable and affect the individuals and their future decisions in some way. All were grateful to be accepted into CTI from day 1 and said it was one of the greatest things that they had done for themselves in a very long time. Hearing first hand of the contributions that CTI has made in so many lives creates a constructive atmosphere where the instructors yearn for repetitive successes in the classes that follow and reinforce the concept that all students will receive the same level of encouragement and assistance as the class prior.

Many of our students contact the CTI staff and notify us of their current employment or living situations. One of our past grads was living on the 4th floor and was seeking employment during the CTI program. I was on the main floor a few weeks ago and came across this individual. The student said that they were not ready in their life to move out of the DI and had not found employment as of yet. This may seem like a cause where success had not been reached, however, the individual explained that they had not seen their father in several years and desired to travel back to their hometown and visit him. The student felt that this was something they needed to do before moving forward in their life. The student acknowledged that taking on too much would raise the risk of stumbling back down to where they had once been and felt that taking a slow but sure path was the best way. This is a lesson emphasized in a life skills workshop. Hearing this come from the students mouth reassured me that the life skills had taught this individual that goals were not an overnight success and that taking everything one day at a time triumphs over quick changes. I know this student will find success when the time is right to move on and find a career.

Another graduate sought great achievements in the career sector. This graduate completed the program and applied for a job working with a temp agency. After a few weeks the company was so thrilled with this individual’s perseverance and positive outlook that they asked them to stay on as a fulltime job apprenticing as a cabinetmaker. The past graduate is still with this company, making enough to support their living independently and enjoying their work at the same time. This student recently emailed CTI saying "The Certifications got me into the temp agency and my hard work got me a job I love". From temp employee to apprenticeship; this is a success story of how one individual awoke to the opportunities of their life by turning up at CTI and paying attention.

These are just several recent cases where CTI has changed the lives of those that have enrolled in the program. CTI wants to give everyone equal opportunity for success in their lives and is committed to do so for many more classes to come.

Course Requirements:


Anyone over the age of 16 years old can apply for the CTI Program.
Interviews will be based on the individuals match with the CTI Program.

Program Overview

Life skills workshops (Personal Vision, Self-Esteem, Employment, Resume, Etc.)

Computer skills (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Internet and E-mail)

Industrial Certifications (Forklift, First Aid and CPR, CSTS, WHMIS – Offered in the 3 weeks.)
TDG, Ground Disturbance, H2S Alive, and Flagger – In Addition to the 3 weeks but encouraged to take (will be automatically given a spot in the course if desired).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Homelessness: A deadly toll on life.

When someone dies, we mourn. Ceremonies are held in which we tell stories about their lives. We toast their many achievements, talk about the difference they made in our lives and our world.

Since the beginning of the year, 24 former and current clients of the Drop-In have passed away. It’s been a record year thus far, doubling in the first 7 months of the year the number of clients who died in 2006. Five of the individuals were murdered. Their assailants remain ‘at large’.

The deceased ranged in age from 18 to 62, with the average being 47 years old. Predominantly men, four of the deceased were women, the most recent being the fatal stabbing of Jackie Crazybull by unknown assailants in the early morning hours of July 11 on 17th Avenue S.W.

There’s very little to say about someone who died homeless. We try to find words to make sense of their passing. That make sense of what happened to their lives. But, there are few words that make sense of the tragedy of a life lost to addictions, abuse, homelessness. There are few words to describe the difference they have made in anyone’s life. In the end, their passing is marked by a single entry in the Drop-In log; Deceased. There’s very little to tell about who the individual was before they found their way to the Drop-In, and little to tell about who they became if they left. Just a simple entry. One word. And a life is over. Deceased. There will be no more entries under their name.

Looking back through the log book, however, the tragedy of their lives becomes apparent. The entries describe lives in disarray. Lives under stress. Lives on a downhill slide. Staff note their interactions with the individuals in terse and simple words. No emotion. No colour. Just the simple facts.

“Norma (all names are fictitious) started three fights on the first floor before being asked to leave. She refused. CPS were called and escorted her off property.”

“At 1:30pm, Glen walked into the Drop-In complaining of sharp pain coming from his abdomen. EMS was already here on another call and assessed him. They transported to hospital.”

“Stuart was drinking on the second floor. He was carrying a plastic bag that had a punctured can of beer in it. The beer leaked all through the 2nd floor and down the stairs. Stuart was given a 14 day bar due to his history of repeated attempts to consume alcohol on the premises. Staff Joe cleaned up the mess.”

These are not life stories to write books about. They are not epitaphs to a life well-lived in which people grieve their passing but celebrate the memories of their having passed through their lives. The ending of their stories speaks of the desperation, the trauma and the pain of lives out of control. Of spirits buried beneath the day-to-day grind of trying to find reason in what appears to be a senseless life leading to an even more senseless death.

Death is the inevitable outcome of life. It’s the timing, however, the youth of the individuals who have died, that makes it hard to grasp, hard to understand, hard to accept. Something is very wrong. Something needs to change.

In Canada, the death rate for 2007 is estimated to be 7.86 deaths/1,000 population[1] . Using a similar extrapolation, and based on a homeless population of 3,436[2], at an anticipated 13.8 deaths/1,000 for 2007, the death rate for anyone who is homeless, or has experienced homelessness is almost double the Canadian rate. In comparison, death by motor vehicle collision is currently 10.7 per 100,000 and suicide deaths are 15.2 per 100,000.

Being homeless is deadly. It strips away dignity. It tears apart families. Destroys self-esteem. Health plummets. Self-pride leaks away. Homelessness kills.

This is not a life anyone would consciously choose. It is not a life with many choices. Being homeless is not a dream come true. It’s a nightmare that no matter where or when you wake-up, leaves you with a hang-over of despair and regret. Sometimes, the fall into homlessness is an abrupt pulling out of the underpinnings of someone’s life. A sudden loss of job. A sky-rocketing rent increase. The unanticipated and sometimes violent ending of a relationship. Sometimes, it’s an imperceptible slide from a life you knew to one that is totally foreign. Sometimes, it’s a case of a familial cycle remaining unbroken. Whatever the cause or inciting incident, addictions, mental health, family violence, break-up of families, poverty, homelessness is not a healthy choice for anyone. And no one deserves what they get.

Since the beginning of the year, five homeless individuals have been stabbed on Calgary streets. The body count is a sad testament to the fragility of life without a home. It is a damming statement of a society that has not come to grips with what we need to do to help those who cannot help themselves. No matter the circumstances leading to someone wearing the label, Homeless, no one deserves to be killed on the streets they call home.

[1] CIA: The World Factbook,
[2] City of Calgary 2006 Homeless Count. Released Wed Jul 19, 2006

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Stampede Parade Unfolds with Life at the Drop-In

I had to get into my office early this morning. At 7am the road will be closed in preparation for the Calgary Stampede Parade, blocking off access to our driveway.

Kitty corner to the Drop-In, the start-up area for the Parade is swarming with people milling about, horses fretting and floats getting their last finishing touches. Parade marshalls scurry about checking on placements, ensuring participants know the what to's and how to's of being part of the extravaganza about to unfold on Calgary's downtown streets. Clowns practice their smile generating arts. Alderman and MPs wander around the vintage convertibles that will convey them through the length of the parade. There's a sea of pink shirts and cowboy hats as men turn up in answer to the question poised by the Stampede's support of Breast Cancer Research, "Are you tough enough to wear pink?" The area is a vast streaming ocean of colour, glitter, balloons. Flags waving. Brass horns shimmering in the sun. Bands warm up their instruments, riders give one last polish to their horses bits and bridles, straighten blankets, check hooves. Multi-coloured floats, people in costumes from around the world, bands, and horses prepare to kick-off, The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

Across the street, staff and clients of the Drop-in watch the scene unfold. Men and women load-up their back-packs and trudge off to work. Others pick up their blankets and head to the park while others stake out their turf beneath the overpass of the bridge laden with cars streaming into downtown.

A world of contradictions once again.

On one side of the street, excitement. Energy. A rainbow of colour. A panoply of people.

On the opposite side, the tired awakening from a short night's sleep interrupted with the constant stirrings of the mass of people who nightly call the shelter home.

On one side, purpose. Destination. Anticipation.

On the other side of the street, a world of difference. A place where few believe they have the capacity to make a difference in their lives today. A place where all anyone can anticipate is having to figure out what they can do with their day, how will they fill their time, before their next fix. Their next meal. Their next sleep.

Yet, once upon a time, everyone had a dream. As children, they played in the streets with their friends. Tossed balls. Skipped rope. Played hide and go seek. They went to school. Dreamt of growing up and being someone. To count. To matter. To be of value.

Somewhere, out there in the big ole' world of opportunity, a corner was turned. An alley was entered. A path was taken that crossed over to the wrong side of the street. Somewhere, someone got lost in the swarm of humanity fighting their way through addictions, mental disorder, family violence, abuse and the host of other contributing factors that result in one day, their becoming that which they never dreamt possible. Homeless.

I look out my window this morning and watch the parade gather up its floats and horses and marching bands and know that this is the real world. This is the world of life. It's filled with love and laughter. Tears and sorrow. Addictions. Family Violence. Abuse. Mental Disorders. Of shared experiences, dreams being lived, being forgotten, being left behind. It's a world of community.

I look inside the building and around the grounds of the Drop-In and know that this too is the real world. This is the world of life. It's filled with love and laughter. Tears and sorrow. Addictions. Family Violence. Abuse. Mental Disorders. Of shared experiences, dreams being lived, being forgotten, being left behind. It's a world of community.

The difference is where we live. One provides us a label of respect. The other a label no one wants to wear, no matter how tough they think they are. Homeless.

On a hillside overlooking the parade marshaling area, a group of shelter clients have staked out a spot where they can safely watch the parade unfold. Their clothes are dark and grimy. There's not a pink shirt in sight. They lie on the grass. They laugh together. Talk. Watch the life unfolding on the streets below.

On the sidewalk at the bottom of the hill, people walk, shoulder to shoulder. Dressed in bright coloured clothes and cowboy hats, they scurry towards the avenue ahead where in an hour the parade will begin its long, slow, serpentine march through downtown. As they reach the avenue, they stake out a spot as close to the edge of the sidewalk as possible. They set up their chairs, their coolers. Some have umbrellas. Some sit directly on the concrete.

No matter where they sit, there's still a difference. No one along the parade route will get a ticket this morning for sitting on the pavement. For the individuals for whom home is a story of once upon a time having a place of their own, they sit in constant alert for someone to come and hassle them out of the way as the parade sweeps past and city workers scurry about cleaning up the route.

It's a world of contradictions and juxtapositions this morning. At the edge of the city core, I watch the parade of life unfold, secure in my place. I cannot change anyone's life. I can only affect my own. Like Darren however, (see yesterday's post, "Two Different Lives. One Spirit", I want to make a difference. Like the staff and volunteers who give their time and energy to create a world of difference at the Drop-In, I am part of delivering hope, strength, encouragement and vital resources to those who have lost hope on the road of life. One day, they may change direction. One day, they may make a different choice and find their way out of homelessness into the lives they once dreamed of having. Until that day, we continue to hold out our hope and hands, compassion and support to help them stay safe on the streets they call home until they find their way back to where they belong. Their own place to call home.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Two different lives. One spirit.

He was 9 the first time he smoked pot and had a drink. His brother was one of the cool kids and he wanted to be like his older brother. His brother drank and smoked pot. So would he.

At 12 he was a runner for a gang. At 16 he left home, the drugs and escalating violence of his life beyond the scope of his parents ability to handle. And he liked the relative freedom of life on the street. He liked the money and most of all, he liked the drugs. By 18 he was a dealer and he'd made a name for himself. Monster. That's what they called him. Not because of the way he looked. He was a good looking young man. Long blonde hair. No scars or broken bones. Yet. They called him Monster because his drug-induced violence knew no bounds. He was capable of anything -- as long as his next fix was the monkey he was after.

At 22, in a drug deal gone 'real bad', he became a convicted killer serving an 8 year sentence for manslaughter. It wouldn't be until just before his 40th birthday that he knew the meaning of sobriety and took his first tentative steps into the responsibility of being human.

At 41 he knows he is capable of standing up for himself, without guns, or a bat, or knife, so that he can make a difference in the world -- not through violence, but through his words.

He was 9 when he first stepped onto the dance floor and began performing. His sister was a member of the Young Canadians. He wanted to be just like his sister. He wanted to dance.

At 12, he had his first solo in front of 18,000 people a night during the Calgary Stampede. At 16 he won a $2,500 scholarship. He was on the honour role and president of his class. And still he danced. He loved it. It was freedom. The music stirred his soul. It resonated throughout his body. He felt powerful when he danced. In charge. Free.

By 18 he was ready to move on from centre stage with the Young Canadians to places unknown. He wanted to experience new opportunities, new horizons. To stretch himself beyond the city limits, out there in the big, wide world beyond.

It's his last year in the Young Canadians. His last year of High School. He doesn't know where his life will lead him, but he does know the opportunities are limitless. He's off to University in the fall. He's off to try different things. His training as a dancer, as a cast member with the Young Canadians has prepared him, built his confidence, cemented his self-worth in the belief that he is capable of anything. He wants to make a difference. To change the world.

Two different lives.

Two different worlds.

Two different journeys.

One Spirit.

Yesterday, I listened to Darren (not his real name) give his story in front of a group of teachers who had come to spend the day at the Drop-In. I had asked him to present to this group of junior and senior high school teachers. He is a powerful speaker with a powerful story that inspires. He was nervous. Uncomfortable."I like presenting to the kids," he said. "I'm not sure about adults. They'll probably judge me."

"Can anyone judge yourself more harshly than you have?" I asked him.

Nervously he ran his hands through his long blonde hair. "No." he replied somewhat sheeplishly.

"Breathe. You want to make a difference. You want to reach the kids. These teachers reach many kids. Your words will spread far beyond this room. They will carry your spirit with them and they will impact the lives of others. You're a courageous man, Darren. You can do this."With each word I spoke he nodded his head.

"Yeah. Yeah. I can do this." And he walked to centre stage and began to speak.

Last night, I went to the dress rehearsal of the Young Canadians show for this year's Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show. They were spirited. Lively. Entertaining. Professional. Ranging in age from 8 to 21, these youth are focused, driven, compelled to do their best and claim their right at Centre Stage.

The contradiction of my day did not escape me. To listen to a convicted killer inspire a room of seasoned teachers who've heard it all, seen it all. To watch him move them to tears, to touch their hearts and open their minds to the possibilities of forgiveness, to new life after a sentence of death by drug abuse was breath taking.

To watch a group of 160 youth dance and sing their ways into the hearts and minds of the hundreds of family members, friends and guests who witnessed their performance last night, was breath taking. Beginning tonight, and for the next ten days, they will be performing in front of 18,000 screaming, stomping, hollering fans as they light up the night with their spirited performances. It takes commitment, dedication, a sense of purpose, hundreds of hours of practice, hundreds of rehearsals, of dancing through tired muscles, blisters, cuts and bruises for these performers to be ready to step onto the Grandstand stage.

For Darren to step into the centre of a room and tell his story, it takes commitment, dedication, a sense of purpose and a strong will to rise above the pain and sorrow and grief of his past. He doesn't do it for pity. He doesn't do it for 'atta boy's, so others will commiserate with him, feel sorry for him. He does it to inspire. Darren wants to make a difference.

In his presentation he speaks of two things in his life that he regrets. Two things he cannot change. Two things he cannot let go of. One. Taking another man's life. Two. The loss of his children.

Both happened because he was stoned. He doesn't use his drug addiction as an excuse though. He states it simply. Clearly. Cleanly. "I was an addict. I would do anything to stay an addict."

Today, Darren, like the kids last night, is committed to being his best. To using his talents, his story and his past to inspire others to create better futures.

"Kids think the drug scene is kinda exciting. Romantic almost. I tell them like it is. I was the crazy crack head walking down the street, with shit in my pants, smelling like a dumpster 'cause that's probably the last place I ate from, looking into cars. If I saw a purse or briefcase, or a nice jacket on the seat, I smashed the window, grabbed whatever it was and ran. As long as I could get money to feed my habit, I didn't care what I did."

He takes a breath.

"I was the guy, lying on the ground, drinking out of a puddle in the alley. That puddle where someone pissed, someone dumped garbage, someone puked. I drank from that puddle 'cause I didn't want to spend a dollar on real water. I needed every dollar I had for my next fix."

Watching the Young Canadians is inspiring.

Listening to Darren is life-changing.

Not one of the 26 people in the room yesterday afternoon left with a judgement about Darren running through their minds. We all left knowing that we had been touched by the spirit of a man, once broken, who is learning to fly. We left having been touched by the awesome nature of a man to rise above the past, to forgive, to embrace all that he was with the power of all that he can be when he claims his right to be free.

"I was 9 when I started using drugs," said Darren. "I'm 41. I spent 30 years of my life running away from myself. 30 years abusing my spirit, my soul, my humanity. I've been clean and sober since March 06. I never want to forget two things. The taste of the gun metal in my mouth when I had decided I'd had enough. I never want to forget that taste because I never want to be there again. And the only way I can never be there again is to stay sober. And I never want to forget I'm an addict. I never want to forget that because knowing who I am is the most important thing to me today. I've learned I am not the Monster I became. I've learned I am a man looking to change. Capable of change. Capable of helping others."

At the end of the performance last night, the kids went home to their families supported by the love and applause and admiration of the audience who witnessed their dance.

Last night, Darren crawled into his bunk at the Drop-In. He's grateful for his bed. For the chance to find himself beneath the trauma and turmoil of his past. He's grateful for the staff whose belief in him gave him courage to believe he could live a drug-free life. As he fell asleep, his mind rested easy. He'd had a good day. Another day to live clean and sober. In his locker at the foot of his bed, pasted to the back of the door is a letter he received from a young student who had heard him speak earlier this year. "Thank you," the student wrote. "You've changed my life." As he closes his eyes, Darren's mind goes to the words written on that page. They mean the world to him. In changing his life, he's changing others. And that's a good difference to make today.