Volunteer program offers a unique experience

As a non-profit organization, The Lighthouse relies on a team of dedicated volunteers to help with client programming, prepping food and serving meals. The task of recruiting people and organizing the program falls to Volunteer Coordinator Grace Rath.

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Volunteer Coordinator Grace Rath

Originally from Ottawa, Rath started at The Lighthouse as a volunteer. She moved to Saskatoon after friends she met while travelling convinced her to give the prairie city a try. “I like that it’s a smaller city and I like the community feel of it,” says Rath, “It’s a pretty friendly city. I immediately met lots of people and just found a great community, it felt like home really fast.”

While studying Sociology at the U of S, Rath saw a poster on the bus advertising for volunteers. “I’d walk downtown to work every day and I’d walk past people panhandling and I didn’t have any money to give them. I didn’t know how to help, so I started volunteering at The Lighthouse,” recalls Rath.

She spent the winter helping prep and serve dinner once a week and then got a summer job in the kitchen. The best part for Rath was getting to know the clients, “You see the same people come through the serving line every evening, so they’d get to know me and I’d get to know them.”

As she neared the end of her degree, a position opened up and the Kitchen Manager encouraged her to apply for it. She’s now been the Volunteer Coordinator for a year and a half. “One thing I learned in school is how important people’s history is,” says Rath, “I learned that in Sociology and also in the history classes I took, that sometimes it can be generations of hurt that someone’s dealing with, not just their own. So it’s a pretty heavy burden to carry. It’s hard to let that go.”

The Lighthouse combats this cycle by organizing various programs to help clients socialize and heal. Rath relies on around fifty regular volunteers to help with meals and fun activities.

Monday evening is Games Night and Rath sets up a Wii in the dining room for clients to play. There are also donated board games and packs of cards. “One of the shelter clients taught me how to play Crib when I first started. That’s probably one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned here because it’s the best game and everyone loves playing it,” says Rath.

Will & Grace

Grace & Will

Regular volunteer Will Pulyk’s favorite night is Coffee House on Fridays. “I usually help out serving coffee and dessert and I find it’s just very satisfying and fun,” says Pulyk, who started volunteering in April. “Last Friday we had Worms and Dirt, the chocolate pudding with gummi worms, and making people smile was very satisfying,” he says.

Coffee House also recruits volunteers to provide entertainment, encouraging folk singers or bands to share their music with clients. Sometimes Rath shows movies, and during the hockey season she always screens the play-offs.

Rath estimates that she works with over a hundred volunteers throughout the year, some are regulars like Pulyk, many come with church groups and a few are students who volunteer as a class requirement.

“I have lots of different reasons why I volunteer, I guess the simplest one is I’ve lived in a few major cities, but I’ve never really felt connected to them,” explains Pulyk, “Now I live on an acreage and I still have that disconnect. I thought that this was a good way to combat that, and I think it’s important to do something positive with the free time that you have.”

Apart from the fun activities, Rath schedules volunteers in the kitchens. There are two meal programs at The Lighthouse; one feeds only people living or staying here. Kitchen Manager Jan Thiessen relies on volunteers to help her prep and serve three meals, plus a snack to around 150 clients every day.

The Cameco Community Kitchen opened last December and is run solely by Rath and her team of volunteers. Operating on Monday and Friday evenings, this program is open to anyone in the community who needs a meal.

Cameco Community Kitchen Volunteers

Cameco Community Kitchen Volunteers

Rath tries to schedule groups of volunteers to come in for the Community Kitchen. “Some groups do provide the food and come and cook it and that’s really great, it helps with our budget. But if there isn’t a group to provide the food or cook it, then I’ll just make it that day and have volunteers come in and serve it,” she says.

Some of the groups are from churches or community societies, and a few are corporate teams. Rath says it’s exciting to see different organizations in the city get involved, “Cameco and Bessborough employees come to volunteer. They have team days where a group of them will run a Bingo Night or work in the kitchen.”

According to Rath, the best part of her job is when volunteers approach her with their own unique ideas. Last winter, a church group wanted give the Community Kitchen clients a formal dining experience. “Normally it’s served cafeteria style, where everyone comes through and gets their own food,” says Rath, “but these ladies came in and decorated the room, they had someone playing some background music and they put down table cloths, flowers and place settings.”

The volunteers came out dressed like waiters and served the main course with a special dessert right at the table, refilling everyone’s coffee and water glasses throughout the meal. “It was just so beautiful and a special thing to do for us. The clients loved it and it was so busy that night, everyone came,” says Rath.

Volunteers providing music at Coffee House

Volunteers providing music at Coffee House

The program is currently looking for volunteers with an artistic background for a weekly Art Group on Saturday afternoons. “That’s another good one to sit and chat with people. Usually we just sit and color and talk. We had a volunteer who came and did a couple classes of creative writing, so that was awesome,” says Rath. She adds that anyone who wants to come in and teach a few classes in drawing, painting, crafting or drama would be welcomed, “We’re always open to whatever people want to do.”

For Pulyk, it’s the community feeling that keeps him coming back to volunteer, “Even in the short time that I’ve been here, one of my favorite parts is seeing new people that have come to The Lighthouse make friends. Now they have people to fall back on and that’s a really wonderful thing to see.”

Lighthouse program provides mental health support

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A room in Complex Needs

It’s been over three years since the Complex Needs Wing at The Lighthouse opened its doors to clients with mental health issues. The program has just added eight beds to the recently renovated Dubé Tower as part of the six month pilot project with the Health Region. New rooms are a welcome addition to those who need a safe place to stay in the city.

Mental illness is often an underlying cause of chronic homelessness, as many are faced with, “difficulty of various kinds in keeping their housing. Some end up getting kicked out of their accommodations due to their illness or addiction, or their needs are in excess of what their approved care home can provide,” says Dennis Bueckert, Director of Client Services.

The one year program is meant for individuals with a significant mental health issue and, “there can also be an addictions component to it in some cases. About two thirds of the folks up there have a combination of the two,” says Bueckert.

The unit is intended to be a transitional program to get people on the path to greater independence and long term housing. It operates with support from Saskatoon Health Region’s Mental Health and Addictions Services. Case Manager Kemi Bashorun explains, “The aim of the program is to help with the health, stability and independence of individual clients who are suffering from mental illness and addictions.”

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Case Manager Kemi Bashorun

The process of admission begins with a referral from someone working with the potential client, such as their psychiatrist, community health nurse or social worker. Once the client’s needs are assessed and found appropriate for the program, an interview is organized between the client, their care worker, a Health Region representative and a member of the Lighthouse staff.

Bashorun emphasizes that they only accept people who are serious about committing to the program. “We don’t want someone who has been forced into the program. Don’t forget we give them autonomy to make choices and decisions. So they have to be able to say ‘Ok, I think that program will be suitable for me,” says Bashorun.

Successful clients are invited to move into their own private room in the Complex Needs Wing. Each room has its own bed, dresser and bathroom with a shower. Some people bring their own TVs or other furniture, and many go a long way in decorating their room. Meals are provided in the dining hall, and clients are encouraged to socialize with other residents.

A requirement of the service is taking part in daily activities. The Lighthouse offers various programs such as Games Night, People Skills and Recovery Group for those struggling with addictions. Clients may choose to be involved in programs at other organizations, “some of them, they go to Clothing Depot to volunteer, it’s so they have something to engage in,” says Bashorun.

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The Complex Needs office

The Complex Needs office is on the first floor of the Dubé Supported Living Tower. It’s a small room with a horse stall door so staff can supervise clients taking their medication and interact with them throughout the day. Part of the treatment plan is for staff to be able to monitor their medication compliance. They make sure clients are taking their medication as prescribed and observe the effects. If staff see a deterioration in their mental state, they will liaise with their nurse or psychiatrist to alter the dosage or type of medication.

Clients are also encouraged to meet with a case manager regularly and discuss their progress. It gives them an opportunity to propose other forms of treatment, discuss resources or suggest adjustments to their medication that may be needed. According to Bashorun, the aim is to, “help stabilize them and help to promote independence. So what we’re trying to avoid is for them to relapse and have to go back to the hospital.”

A vital component to the program is establishing a relationship based on trust. Lighthouse staff engage with clients on a daily basis, “so they’ll know that we’re here to listen, we know where they’re coming from and empathize with them,” says Bashorun.

Jamie Johnson has been living in The Complex Needs Wing since last winter. She’s ten months clean of all substances and credits The Lighthouse with her sobriety. “They’re treating me really well,” says Johnson, “they look after my meds. I’m schizo affective and bi-polar, so I’m on medication for my mind and I’m on methadone for treating my drug habit.”

All rooms have a private bathroom with a shower

All rooms have a private bathroom with a shower

Once a client has completed nine months of the program, their case manager begins to prepare them to transition back into the community. They collaborate with their care worker to find them appropriate housing. Some clients move in with roommates or go to group homes, but many don’t want to leave.

“They really like it here, this is their home. They’re very stable and the option of leaving at the end of twelve months is difficult for them,” says Bashorun, “So we’re not really pushing them, but at the same time it’s like a baby step.” In those cases, staff work to place clients in the Supported Living Suites at The Lighthouse. Those rooms offer more independence without taking them away from their environment.

The Complex Needs Wing recently expanded from nine to seventeen rooms. Occupancy rates are high, running between 80-95%. Two case managers and four staff provide support for these clients.

Support Worker Adriana Krebsz is finishing her last shift in The Complex Needs Wing before moving to her new house and a job with the Health Region. “I was really happy here. When I was hired I planned to stay long, but we found a house we liked in Wynyard,” says Krebsz. Originally from Romania, Krebsz is a social worker and nurse with experience working with the elderly. “I’ll miss you,” says Bashorun, giving her a big hug.

Krebsz and Bashorun

Adriana and Kemi

Bashorun also moved to Canada with her family, and has been working at The Lighthouse for the past year and a half. Born in the UK, she grew up in Nigeria but returned to England for university. She worked as a dual diagnostic nurse in several different environments. “I’ve worked in in-patient psychiatry, and as an emergency nurse. I’ve worked in rehab centers, community drug and alcohol settings, and my last work was in prison corrections in London,” says Bashorun.

“The thing about The Lighthouse is this is a family kind of setting. So it’s not a tense environment, even though your work is so tense,” Bashorun says, “Even if you go out, the impression that you get from the community is, ‘Oh Lighthouse! How do you cope?’ Sometimes I just laugh and say, ‘You know what? We have people here that really need help and it’s somebody’s job to be there for them.”

Case Manager and Care Aide team up to help clients

Over the last two months, Case Manager Touni Vardeh-Esakian has helped to house over twenty clients from The Lighthouse emergency shelter. He goes about it the old fashioned way: looking for ads on Kijiji, calling landlords and helping clients fill out application forms.

The biggest challenge in finding housing is convincing landlords to give his clients a chance. “Homeless has a different meaning to lots of people who’ve never been homeless before,” says Vardeh-Esakian, “I try to explain to them that they’re just normal people who’ve had something go wrong in their lives, they’re here temporarily and we’re trying to get them back into the community.”

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Sheila & Touni in the Lighthouse dining room

Vardeh-Esakian also helps clients navigate Social Services, look for jobs, replace lost IDs, and attend court hearings. “I’m there for support,” he says, “Also, I’m there just to talk, because people have a lot of stress in their life, and sometimes they just want to sit down and let it all out.”

Sheila Poorman was recently hired as a full time Care Aide, a new position created as part of the six month pilot project. She started at The Lighthouse as a custodian, but once she met the residents, they opened up to her and she quickly realized that she wanted to work in client care.

“I come from a background of addictions, so I know what the clients are going through and I have an understanding of their situation,” says Poorman, who moved to the Stabilization Unit and started to build relationships with her clients. Working in Stabilization reminded her of her mother, and how her addiction eventually took her life.

As a Care Aide, she now helps residents with activities, such as reminding them of doctor’s appointments, helping them with laundry and changing one client’s medical socks every day.

Since the pilot project launched, Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian have teamed up to help each other. “We support each other if one of us needs help, if one can’t handle it. We’re always there for each other, it’s like a marriage,” jokes Vardeh-Esakian. The duo have set out to help residents manage their rooms and promote healthy lifestyles. As Poorman explains, “a problem with most of the clients is that they’re hoarders, and it causes health issues for themselves and any other tenants.”

People hoard, “because they’re missing something in their life and they’re trying to compensate for it,” says Poorman, “So if it’s something they lost, like a family member, you know that’s something that was meaningful to them. So they take all these little possessions that they find and they keep them and they don’t want to lose them.”

It’s slow and patient work for Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian as they try to help one client at a time. Poorman admits, “Even for us it’s very difficult to get their permission and have them feel comfortable for us to go in. We need to have a really close relationship to touch their clothes or go in their personal belongings. We can’t just go in and start throwing stuff out, they have to trust us.”

Touni & Sheila 2Once they get into a room, they’ll go through their possessions one by one, asking what can be thrown away and what can stay. The work consists of, “mainly going through their clothing, making sure they have dressers to put them in, a laundry hamper, and a garbage can. We try to get them in a routine of doing their laundry and setting a time of when they would clean their room,” explains Poorman.

Since this is a new service being offered, it takes some time for residents to get used to the idea of someone to help clean their room. Sometimes Poorman will help clients move from one apartment to another, and get rid of unwanted things in the process.

“I had one client who, after we went in and helped him, he put it upon himself to say, ‘I want to get rid of more stuff,’ says Poorman, “And that’s the point where we want to see the clients, to take the initiative to say, ‘Ok, I want to get rid of stuff’ on their own. At least they have the mindset of ‘I’m doing this’, instead of us doing it to them.”

Vardeh-Esakian is going to school as well as working at The Lighthouse. He’s set to graduate with his Bachelor of Social Work next year and plans to stay on as a Case Manager. “You do get attached to these clients because you work with them every day,” he says, “You see them breakfast, lunch and supper. You see them cry, you see them intoxicated, you see them on their worst days and on their happiest days.”

Both Poorman and Vardeh-Esakian are parents, and their children demonstrate the same care and compassion to clients as they do. “I bring my kids here to volunteer. They come to the main kitchen and they love it. My eldest daughter, she comes here and she really likes it,” says Vardeh-Esakian.

Poorman and her two daughters used to cruise 20th St. and offer rides to people before The Lighthouse Mobile Outreach program launched. “My daughter would say, ‘Mom, let’s go see if they’re ok.’ So we would, and some of them needed a ride,” recalls Poorman, “And that was when in my heart I felt I needed to help these people a little bit more, and not just by giving them a ride.”

“I think they feel safe when they see the Lighthouse van, when they see us around, because they know that we’re there for them,” explains Poorman. “We understand them,” adds Vardeh-Esakian. Poorman nods in agreement, “We’ll treat them with respect,” she says, “And it’s a good lesson for my daughters to understand that homelessness isn’t an ugly thing.”

A Shelter from the Storm

It’s noon on a Tuesday and the Stabilization Unit is quiet. The dimly lit room is situated with beds on the right, and a long desk for employees near the double doors at the front. A half wall divides the beds from the lounge to the left. Two men are sleeping in beds farthest away from the doors and another is eating at a table in the lounge, watching Netflix on a TV in the corner. Staff members speak in slightly hushed voices and the dim lighting gives a sleepy, relaxed atmosphere to the shadowy green room.

Stabilization 1

This is where people who are intoxicated can come to sleep, eat and sober up. The rules are strict: no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises, meals are served only during specific times, and clients must keep their personal belongings in a bin and collect them when they leave, even if it’s just for a smoke break.

The phone rings and Whitney Rines answers; It’s the Front Desk with another intoxicated client. Rines explains that afternoons are usually slow in the unit because most clients are out and about during the day. The busy hours are from 4pm to midnight, and the beds fill up quickly.

Staff members work hard to make this a safe environment. “You have to understand that people are drinking or using,” says Rines, “you know things that they say they don’t mean, or things that they do they don’t mean. So I think it’s quite a tolerant environment, but violence is not accepted at all.” Clients are supervised at all times and are escorted in and out of the building by a staff member.

Whitney Rines

Rines has been working at The Lighthouse for the past four years and has been with the Stabilization Unit from its inception two and a half years ago. Since opening in February, 2013, the unit has drastically reduced the number of people held in police custody for intoxication, and helped take the pressure off of emergency rooms.

Last month, the Stabilization Unit housed 724 people and used 930 beds, which averages out to 24 people every day. The bed usage is higher because many clients come to the unit twice a day. The staff estimates they have 80 to 100 regular clients they see on a weekly basis, most of them men of First Nations descent. “A lot of them do stay nightly, a lot of them come twice a day or more and eat every meal here,” says Rines.

Tommy LaPlante sits at the table in the lounge and chats quietly with two men who are eating lunch and watching a movie on Netflix. They seem at ease with him and it becomes clear that he’s there to help them get sober. “Have you ever been to a meeting?” he asks one man casually.

LaPlante is the Case Manager in the Stabilization Unit and it’s his job to help connect clients with services like addictions counselling or applying for housing. “We’re not just a warehouse for people. We are a place where people can come in and change and access supports. And a lot of people don’t realize that there are supports out there,” says LaPlante, who has held this position for the past two months.

On a daily basis, LaPlante will sit down with five to seven people and discuss their addictions. He says that, “a lot of times people are at this pre-contemplation stage where they’re not even thinking about their problem, so if I can be there and just listen and talk and wait for those moments of clarity where they’re tired of being tired and they’re tired of not having a home, then I can really start to help them.”

At the desk, Michelle Belanger is keeping busy organizing files. A big part of her job is also cleaning the showers and washrooms, changing bedding and doing laundry. When new clients come into the Stabilization Unit, Belanger will sit with them and fill out a long intake form, asking questions about alcohol consumption, drug use and other health concerns. She gives the client a pair of sweat pants and t-shirt to wear and washes their clothing while they sleep.Michelle 1

Belanger says she had to grow a thick skin when she first started at The Lighthouse, “I quickly realized not to take anything too personally here. There were times when I’d start crying, but I learned to let it all roll off my back. They don’t mean what they say when they’re intoxicated.” Belanger now has an easy rapport with the clients, who form strong relationships with staff.

As one client gets ready to leave, he jovially bids Belanger and Rines goodbye, “Thank you for lunch ladies, make sure these boys behave. If not you can always duct tape them to the chairs,” he picks up some green tape from the desk. “That’s painter’s tape,” laughs Rines.

Clients are offered meals at specific times and are served cereal or toast for breakfast and sandwiches for supper. The hot lunch today is a burrito with chicken noodle soup and a juice box. There is a toaster, microwave, electric tea kettle and water cooler behind the desk, and clients are offered toast after three hours to help settle their stomach.

As the afternoon wears on, two more men come in to the unit. They lay on beds side by side, and one falls asleep right away. The other is quite visibly intoxicated, and can’t get comfortable. He sits up on the edge of his bed, holds his head in his hands and swears loudly. “He’s grumpy today,” observes Rines.

Finally he decides to get up and go outside for a smoke. Rines immediately gets his backpack for him to take but he refuses, saying, “I’m not taking my backpack outside just to have a smoke. Are you stupid?” As he gets more agitated, Rines continues to calmly explain that it’s the rule. They don’t want clients to forget their belongings and have to throw it out. She ends up carrying the backpack herself as she escorts him outside.

When she gets back she explains, “He couldn’t tell it was me! He said he couldn’t see me in the dim light and didn’t realize it was me. When we got outside he broke down and started crying. He’s just having a bad day.”

The compassion and support of the staff is evident. Their understanding comes from a personal place as some staff members have struggled with addictions and homelessness themselves.

Rines is a nursing student who goes to school full time while working two part time jobs. She worked in Complex Needs, Client Programming and Mobile Outreach before coming to the Stabilization Unit. Rines explains that she feels comfortable here because she grew up in a similar environment. She has two years of school left before she completes her degree, then hopes to find work as a nurse.

Belanger is a single mother of two who has been working at The Lighthouse for eight months. The best part of her job is seeing clients decide to go into treatment to get the help they need. She recently received a thank you note from one person who left for rehab, but Belanger says, “I don’t need any gifts or thank yous, seeing them get better is the only gift I need.” She hopes to make a career in this field and has recently applied to go back to school to become an Addictions Counsellor at SIIT.

LaPlante recently finished the same program and received his Diploma in Addictions Counselling last month. Six years ago he was living at the Salvation Army, struggling with his own addictions. Now he helps some of the people he used to live with. “Years ago when my life was a wreck, I used to drink down by the river with some of these guys. I was in and out of jail and I met a lot of these guys there and a lot of people still remember me from that,” recalls LaPlante, “A lot of them are very happy for me. Especially once I graduated, I got big sweaty hugs from them because they were Michelle and Whitneyproud of me.”

He now uses his experience with homelessness to motivate his clients, “I’ve heard it many times now, ‘Well if you did it, I can do it,’ and that’s just it. And I tell them, ‘Yes!’ I get to tell them now that five years ago I went into treatment. I went to a year-long treatment center and I made all these steps to improve myself.”

Renovations are underway to improve the Stabilization Unit. The plan is to expand the current unit from 20 to 37 beds. The new space on the ground floor of the Wellness and Education Centre will have an entrance at the back of the building, separate from the Front Desk. This will allow clients to discreetly come and go as necessary, without a staff escort. There will also be an intake room where LaPlante can chat with clients privately.

“I tell them they can do it now. I say, ‘What if I told you in five years you can be working at the job that you want to work at, have an education and be at the same place in life that I am?” says Laplante, “It’s a powerful tool, a lot of them do like that.” The new Stabilization Unit is set to open this fall.