It's one thing to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, quite another to have hearts as beautiful as the place we call home.
You could see the radiant heart of our community on Saturday at the Dundarave Christmas Fair. In the middle of a rain storm (that's what the season looks like in our corner of the North Pacific), hundreds of people were jammed into the Festival Longhouse by the time Mayor Mike Smith took the stage. The Mayor called attention to the fact of homelessness in our community, and how it is entirely within our capabilities to make sure no one is left out in the cold.
The proof of his claim was lined up, over a hundred voices strong, behind him. By themselves, the North Shore's Burstin with Broadway choir has raised over $2,100 for the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's North Shore Shelter. Each tree in the Dundarave Festival has its own pledge page, a "cyber tree". Burstin With Broadway has shown its vibrancy and life as a community by lighting up its "cyber tree" a roman candle. This community has by itself brought in 10% of charitable donations to the North Shore Shelter this season. Without singing single bar of a Christmas song — they only do Broadway, it's show tunes all the time — this choir exemplifies the true spirit of Christmas
Borrowing from La Cages aux Folles, the choir affirms "We are what we are, and what we are needs no explaining". It became clear to everyone on Saturday that this includes having hearts as bold and vast as the North Pacific.
Mayor Smith lead us in the magic words that lit up the Festival's 100 Christmas trees, its "forest of miracles"; the gilded youth of the West Van Youth Band lit up the night with brilliant fanfare.
When they ended their set, the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's Executive Director, Karen O'Shannacery, OBC took the mic. She told us the story of a phone call she'd received earlier in the week from a West Vancouver resident, the descendant of a number of generations of West Vancouverites.
"Sally" had lost her home and her children due to her husband's violence. The violence had also triggered a profound anxiety disorder. She was en route to yield to her suffering by taking her own life, when she stopped in at the North Shore Shelter.
"Do you have a better plan for me?" she asked.
The answer they were able to give her was powered by the Festival's Christmas trees. These trees have raised over $100,000, thanks to the generosity of tree sponsors like Burstin With Broadway. The Lookout Society has used this money to fund its transitional support program. While the federal and provincial governments give money to the Shelter for emergency assistance, rescuing people from our beaches, ravines and streets, they provide no funding to allow these most vulnerable members of our community to get back on their feet. The Festival's Christmas trees do this.
Karen told us the Shelter was able to place "Sally" in its transitional support program, where she received the loving, professional support to heal and return to herself. She had phoned Karen to say that her children had been returned to her, that she had built a new career, and secured a new home of her own. "Sally", like Burstin With Broadway, shines with a heart as big and bold as the North Pacific.
From Mayor Smith's courage and candour in naming the truth of homelessness, to this choir and one woman's astounding strength, we saw the beauty of our community at the Dundarave Christmas Fair.
"Royal Hudson" Creative Commons, with thanks to photographer Miss Barabanov.
By Karen O'Shannacery, OBC and Michael Markwick
This season brings home the fact of the impact we have on each other, and how ultimately irreplaceable we are to each other.
Al Mitchell was an architect of the Lookout Society as we know it today. He passed away suddenly, leaving many of us struggling with mourning. But all of the emotions and memories that keep welling up in this moment bring us back to the main thing about Al and what he taught us: no one is disposable, each of us irreplaceable, and we have to do everything in our power to love, serve and nurture each other.
If Al was walking among us today, he would be challenging us to rise to our best, to continue to take on the challenges, helping people who often have no where to go, or anyone to support them. This exhortation is especially important to keep in mind as we enter Homelessness Action Week.
Over his twenty seven years of devoted service, Al played a life transforming role in the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community. Inwardly, he anchored this in his faith, and outwardly it was easy for everyone to see in his tender compassion the depth and richness of his spiritual life. Al also advocated for change in the social service system, to both reduce the risk of people becoming homeless or being put at risk in the first place. His work was bigger than the work of the Lookout Society because he lived his spirituality and beliefs morning to night, committed to doing what was right, no matter what the obstacle, in the eyes of God and fellow human beings. This is an important truth, even for those of us who have no religious beliefs or affiliations, because it was such a vital part of Al and everything he did. It's an important truth to hold on to, especially as so many of us are wrung out with grief at this moment.
For Al, this translated into two core principles that have become basic to our work. First, he believed in making sure everything we do helps put the client back in control of his or her life and well being. Al's generosity and caring was for the whole person, and in practice this resulted in Lookout's golden rule: "When in doubt, the client is considered right." We work with people who have been for much of their lives or all of their lives rejected, betrayed, and stripped of the companionship that is essential for survival. While it might seem more efficient to build an institutional culture that just kept telling them what to do, Al taught us that we should always guard against the idea that we know what's best. He had a remarkable gift of talking to anyone, opening himself up to understand and connect with the person in front of him. And so it was never a mechanical thing for Al to believe in the client. The client was a human person, and our role was to do whatever was in our power to make sure this person could always decide what was in his or her best interest.
Very often this meant starting with the urgent necessity of making sure the client would actually survive the night. This was Al's second core principle. Ending homelessness was something we had to do structurally, by correcting the mistakes we're making as a society that result in putting people out on our streets and in our parks, but it was something we had to do personally, one individual at a time. Al was a life saver. To do this, he'd call us to set see in context the big, insurmountable challenges that were pushing our clients to the brink. Those challenges would have to be addressed, but the most important thing was to make sure this person survived the night. Our job is to make sure, for each person in front of us, tomorrow could in fact be another day.
The Lookout Society would likely be a very different, and much diminished, organization if Al Mitchell did not exist. There are many people alive and thriving today who would have perished if it were not for Al's work, and the way he called us to do our work with intelligent compassion. To honour his life, we're going to raise a Christmas tree for Al at the Dundarave Festival. Al had a strange obsession. He loved trains, everything about them. Al's tree will be on Dundarave Beach within ear shot of the BC Rail line. Join us there on Saturday November 30th as we cover it with trains and light it up at dusk for Al. If you'd like to get things started right away, click this link to "decorate" Shelter Al's tree with a charitable donation to the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.
We are now entering Homelessness Action Week. Let us do so in loving memory of Al Mitchell. Let this bring a new strength in our hands, a renewed clarity of purpose and a deeper determination to end homelessness in our community. Our friend, one way or another, is still with us and he calls us to the better angels of our nature, a loving, energetic and healing solidarity with the people who are pushed to the margins of our society.
"Royal Hudson" Creative Commons, with thanks to photographer Miss Barabanov.
Karen speaks to a packed Festival Longhouse
Karen O'Shannacery has been named to the Order of British Columbia, the highest civilian honour of our province. And we are very proud to say that Karen, the force of nature behind the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, is a friend of the Dundarave Festival of Lights. There are few British Columbians whose life work speaks so powerfully to the community we ought to be—a community that leaves no one behind, that celebrates the beauty of every human person, and refuses to treat anyone as disposable or unworthy of love.
It was a powerful moment in the Festival Longhouse last season when Karen took the mike and, as only she can do it—with warmth, courage, and inspiring determination, challenged us to see the day when every bed in a homeless shelter would lead to a permanent bed. The answer to homelessness, on this reasoning, is a home.
This is a happy moment for all of us to take stock of the future of our communities. The pressures of life can be so great that it takes a conscious, determined effort to think about the world as it ought to be, to ask tough questions about the ways people are pushed to the margins of our society, and then make the leap of faith necessary to make change happen. What marks Karen as a remarkable British Columbian is the courage, vision and joy she brings to this work of conscience, justice and mercy through the Lookout Emergency Aid Society. There are, to put it bluntly, hundreds of people this year on the North Shore and thousands across Metro Vancouver who would be homeless were it not for the tireless work of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, the agency Karen helped to found. So here's to Karen O'Shannacery and the work we hold in common of making sure no one is left out in the cold.
Karen O’Shannacery has worked for more than four decades seeking solutions and providing comfort to the homeless and disenfranchised of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Ms. O’Shannacery’s compassion for those less fortunate has led to the establishment of quality resources and housing. She has a thorough understanding of the issues, is a tireless advocate for homeless people, a respected, well-spoken leader and a team player who works across boundaries to achieve change. Among her many successes, Ms. O’Shannacery’s has created 17 housing projects, including three multi-use buildings, renovation of two single-room occupancy buildings and the opening of Antoinette Lodge, subsidized housing in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. She co-founded a provincial Shelter Network and was instrumental in the purchase and renovation of New Westminster’s former College Place night club, which now serves as a homeless shelter and transitional housing.