“We accept people where they are at when they come in the door…if you’re homeless, working the streets, have addiction issues, mental health issues, family or no family, if you’re in crisis, if you’ve just experienced a trauma, wherever you are at, you are welcome here.” —Charmaine Frado, PARC.
The Parkdale Activity – Recreation Centre (PARC) is buzzing with activity in preparation for their 30th anniversary party (which took place on St. Patrick’s Day), and Charmaine Frado, PARC’s Resource Development Director, is showing me around.
Members of the Silver Brush program, set up to help marginalized people find employment, are putting a new coat of paint on the roomy drop-in centre. Other members are hauling out trash, prepping the kitchen, and creating photo collages depicting the centre’s three-decade-long history.
There’s a sense of camaraderie and productivity in the air, and that’s the way Frado, who has been employed at PARC for 9 years, likes it.
“We’re not constantly thinking from a medical or a charity model, where we are just giving, giving, giving. We give, but there’s some expectation,” she insists. “A big organization like this generates work, if they are at that point where they want to work. Usually there’s stepping stones, they volunteer first, then move into other areas of employment.
“People with mental health issues recover,” she stresses. “It’s possible and it happens here everyday.”
Frado knows that’s true because she’s a survivor of mental illness.
“Mental health is the unseen disability,” she explains.
“I have a mental health history, personally my own lived experience of it, and you would never know that because I sit in an office in a chair doing a job every day of my life, I’m capable of going to work.”
“I am an example of the community members here at PARC and yet I‘m one of the directors of the organization…most people wouldn’t know that about me, and that’s why I’m not shy about sharing it, because I think it helps other people to see.”
Helping people see beyond limiting stigmas associated with mental illness, homelessness and addiction, is one of PARC’s crucial objectives.
As my tour continues, Frado leads me outside to a neighbouring construction site.
PARC, in addition to its drop-in centre and other services, boasts ten units of supportive housing at the current location at 1499 Queen Street West, and Edmond Place, set for completion at the end of the year, will provide 29 more units.
Frado realizes that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of housing for marginalized individuals in their neighbourhood.
That concern gave birth to the Ambassador Program, which encourages members of PARC to interact with the community on a door-to-door basis.
“When we started with Edmond Place there was a lot of negativity…and we had a lot of negative feedback from the community…and we worked really, really hard training PARC members who have mental health issues to go out and talk to the community and educate the community, residents and businesses alike. And we overcame the stigma that existed around us building more affordable supportive housing, but it’s still there it’s still pervasive in our society.”
Terrence Williams is the Coordinator of the Ambassador Program, he also sat on the board of directors at PARC for nearly seven years. That just scratches the surface when it comes to his involvement in the community, a remarkable fact considering he lived as a virtual recluse for years.
“Before I came to PARC about 8 years ago, I was very socially isolated for about 15 years, I pretty much stayed in my apartment, I was in and out of hospital, on and off of medication, I was somewhat anxious at times, depressed at times. I hardly had anyone to talk to or do things with. Then I came to PARC and got very connected here and very involved,” he explains.
“I ended up on the board of directors in 2003 and I got connected with other agencies…I’m doing quite a bit of social networking now, my life really turned around completely. I got a new lease on life.”
His story is a familiar one.
Rick Froud and Phil Hozer both struggled with alcohol and mental illness, finding it difficult to communicate with others and maintain relationships. Today, they are both PARC Ambassadors, brimming with confidence.
“I had a lot of anxiety a lot of fear, I was really depressed, my life was absolutely miserable and I needed to gain a new perspective on life,” Hozer admits. “I wanted to move on to something different and I needed to do that and PARC has helped facilitate that and they gave me opportunity after opportunity.”
Froud’s story sounds strikingly similar. “I was hard to get along with when I first started. This place helped me socialize and get involved, I helped out with group support down at the drop-in, where I used to take people out for events and outings, that helped me a lot.
“We all have a common goal and that’s to better our lives and move on and not have to rely on social assistance in the future and that’s what my goal is.”
Diane Lane spent 8 months sitting in a single room, unable and unwilling to move. Her husband vehemently urged her to visit PARC, and she soon became involved in a vibrant new scene. Before long she was working in the kitchen, helping with the filing, and today she’s learning to work on a computer for the first time.
The Parkdale Activity – Recreation Centre was conceived in 1977 by a group of volunteers who recognized that a large number of adults with mental health and addiction problems were living in rooming houses in the Parkdale area, but had nowhere to go during the day.
After 30 years, growth has been dramatic and many lives have been altered.
“We provide meals, there’s showers available, there’s folks to talk to, there’s referrals available if you need them to a crisis centre or housing or detox. There’s creative programs, arts programs, music programs, writing groups, there’s recreational activity, soccer, hockey, there’s event planning,” Frado breathlessly explains.
“Over the 30 years it’s done some pretty phenomenal work, especially in the last five years. Lots of lives changed, and attitudes.”
It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and PARC’s 30th anniversary party is underway. The drop-in centre is packed. Members socialize, eat, play cards and perform live music.
Jake, a self-described homeless drummer, approaches me somewhat suspiciously at first, but before long he’s spilling his guts, longing it seems, to tell his story.
“I got divorced, my wife turned to drugs,” he explains, his eyes welling up. “I’m surrounded by drugs, and booze and prostitution and that’s not where I came from, I came from a good family, now I see this shit and I’m part of it, but I’m not gonna be part of it, I’m not gonna get stuck.”
“I was introduced to this program 3 weeks ago by ‘Zephie’,” he adds. “The people are magical. There’s some great people. I wake up looking forward to coming here. I have to get back on track, but it’s a real pleasure to see people like myself, down on their luck, looking for a way out.”
‘Zephie’ is Zepheniah James, a 59-year-old drop-in worker born and raised in Jamaica. He’s a towering presence with a gentle, wise demeanour, and he’s a driving force behind the music program at PARC.
He sees the good and the potential in people like Jake, and believes that with some support, anyone can turn their life around.
“If you share love then you don’t see the negative problem of the other person, you see in which way you can help. But if you try to put yourself into a different position that ‘I’m not going to be in that person’s shoes,’ don’t say that, you never can tell when that day comes, so love somebody, if you love somebody then you will do the right thing.”
“The key word is love, love and respect,” he reiterates.
“Don’t just look at the person and say he has mental illness I don’t want to deal with him, no that person needs somebody to talk to.”