Reaching out a helping hand
by Marion Van Driel
When you ask Michelle Veeneman about her work, a noticeable animation creeps into her voice, and her eyes light up. Veeneman heads up the Supportive Independent Living program at the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope in Abbotsford, helping men with mental health and/or addiction issues become fully independent – particularly after going through an addiction recovery program. The program is holistic in its approach, addressing the spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological aspects of each person.
Veeneman oversees the residence that houses 14 men. Their rooms adjoin one of three pods, each including shared kitchen and bathroom facilities and gathering space. Down the hallway are rooms for group events, Veeneman’s office, and an outdoor patio with a barbeque, bicycle storage and containers of herbs, tomatoes and flowers. The residents have access to an on-site nurse and chaplain who also support the emergency shelter and those who come for help.
Challenges and Rewards
The journey for an addict is often long and discouraging. Veeneman helps the residents set goal plans, which includes counselling and referrals to supportive programs. Accountability is a key component; each resident needs to check in with Veeneman to ensure they’re complying with the program’s requirements, and to discuss their progress moving forward. Sometimes Veeneman plans a barbeque, a games night, or other event. She tells of the great evening they had last night; someone donated BC Lions tickets. Veeneman enjoys never quite knowing what the day will bring. “Every day is different,” she says. The job has its gruelling moments, but also its rewards.
One Man’s Story
One person whose story is unfolding in a positive way is Greg, a resident who fights the demons of addiction, but is currently clean, sober, and progressing towards independence. As an adopted child, he always considered his adoptive parents his own. He remembers going to church for a short time when he was very young. His life was fairly normal, until his late teens when he started smoking marijuana, and his grades dropped. He had been intoxicated from alcohol, compliments of a hockey coach, when he was 14. He later advanced to harder drugs including cocaine and then crack.
Greg’s parents knew there was a problem, but didn’t understand the severity of it. The day he was released from his first drug rehab program to get off of crack, he headed straight for the liquor store, reasoning that alcohol, being legal, was acceptable. He worked seasonally as a boilermaker, earning a higher wage in four months than many people did annually. In the eight months off, he spent all his money on alcohol, and was always broke. Because of his addiction, he eventually lost his job. After his mother passed away (his father was already gone), Greg started using cocaine again, spending a sizeable inheritance to support his habit.
A Metaphor Realized
Greg lived in shelters, on the streets, under a bridge. He was often cold, unaware of his surroundings, and was even attacked by an axe-wielding man. He remembers one night in particular, in Maple Ridge, when he was going between homeless and living at the Salvation Army. “I got rip-roaring drunk one night…well, all day. I ended up down on the wharf by the Fraser River. I was standing on the bank, and slid down in the mud. I would have slipped right into the river, except there was a walkway at the bottom. I couldn’t make my way back up because I kept sliding down in the mud…I had this stinky mud on the front of me and the back of me, everywhere. I look at that as a metaphor of my life. I was crawling out a bit, and then I’d slide all the way back down – I did that several times.”
Greg had the presence of mind to call his sister who came to get him. Still trying to scramble up the bank in the darkness, “a guy came by and said to me, ‘Greg, if you go over about 10 feet, there’s some rocks you can climb up.’ I got to the top and met my sister who put a blanket on the seat of her car and took me to the Salvation Army. But they said, ‘no, we’re full up now’, so I slept under a bush in the rain, freezing… That’s when I decided to go to King Haven treatment centre here in Abbotsford.” He was sober for about six months before sliding back to his old lifestyle, struggling to exist.
A New Reality
Early this year, Greg returned to King Haven for treatment, with the support of the Salvation Army and has since been working towards full independence. There’s a visible sense of relief when asked how it feels to be sober. Greg says it feels good enough not to go back again. Unable to keep half a meal down a year ago, he’s much healthier today. He credits the help of Salvation Army, sings his heart out at the Sunday morning services, and enjoys the Monday night Bible studies. “I thank God every day. I’m almost glad for the stuff that’s happened to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Check out the Salvation Army Centre of Hope in Abbotsford at www.careandshare.ca