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Community Matters

Step By Step: The Staff of Stepping Stones Helps Kids in Need

May 1st, 2015

By Jasmin Herold

Too big is the risk that others would judge her, but they only see the trouble…they never saw the struggle. Surviving the streets at an early age of 13. To be abandoned by your mother at five months old. To be raised by a drug addicted father. Too big is the risk that others would judge her for her story. A story she has battled all her young life to change. Too great is the risk that she could lose everything that the others never had to fight for. That is why this article does not have a photo of Sandra. That is why Sandra is not her real name but her story. A story that sadly is all too common for many young people across Canada, children and teenagers who do not know the word, childhood.

Around one-third of Canada's homeless population is youth. Abuse and neglect are the two major reasons why young people leave home. Several studies have shown that nearly 70 per cent of homeless youth have experienced some form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse and are significantly more likely to encounter violence, sickness, injuries and mental health problems than their non-homeless peers, with often long-term implications for their self-esteem, relationships, and ability to become self-supporting. A Quebec study found that the death rate among homeless youth was 11 times higher than in the general population.

For the time being society thought nightmares were just mental imaginations, as Sandra has faced many negative and unfortunate series of events. "It is what it is,” she exclaims while staring out the window. Since her father's drug and alcohol addictions forced the family from one run-down apartment to the next. Evictions were as often as a person would get a new pair of shoes. Sometimes the family could not find a new home and were left with no option but to sleep on the streets. Cold and exhausted Sandra would sleep no more than three hours at a time. She can recall a Christmas spent in a stairwell, starving for food and envying the childhood of others.

How can you know that something is wrong if you never knew it differently? Children of addicts are up to nine times more likely to develop an addiction of their own. Without guidance or help, children and teenagers face a dismal future. Street youth like Sandra are 11 times more likely to die of a drug overdose and suicide. Female addicts are 54 per cent more likely to die prematurely. Breaking the cycle at a young age is very difficult due to its effects on the growing brain. The problem with younger brains is that they get stuck on drug-related stimuli easier of all the age groups considered. With their brains still developing, teens who experiment with drugs can easily become victims of addiction.

"He was unstable so I was unstable too," Sandra reflects about her father. One might not see the traces in Sandra's face today but one gets a glimpse when she shows a picture of herself from a year ago: A girl with eyes wide open, physically exhausted, sunken-in-cheeks and an expression that seems to look through you.

Having been exposed to her father's destructive addiction from an early age, Sandra's struggled with change and choosing a healthy path. On and off the streets Sandra found comfort in a group of people with similar situations, while fallen into a whirlpool of substance abuse they all looked out for one another, comforted each other, and became a makeshift family for Sandra.

Sandra's story could have ended here on the streets, another unfortunate statistic, but it doesn't. She broke the cycle but before she could things had to go from bad to worse before they could get better. Although she had managed life on the streets by herself, she saw her Father from time to time. "He was my family," she says with conflicted eyes, "but he left for another city, leaving me by myself.” The abandonment of her father created the feeling of emptiness and frustration. No amount of alcohol or drugs could take away her sadness.

"I knew that I could do it with the encouragement of everybody, I managed to face a lot of things with the help of Stepping Stones. Thank you."

From the outside, Stepping Stones, located in Dickinsfield, looks like a welcoming family home. Entering through the front door one is greeted by a bright living room circled with couches. Connected to the living room is an open kitchen. The smell of supper cooking in the oven warms the room. There is always a pot of coffee brewing and homemade food on the counter. It must have felt different for Sandra the first time she came here, a house other children would consider normal. It was a year ago she stepped through that door and it was a step that changed her life for the better. From time to time she falls down but then bravely stands up and continues to focus on her goals.

The Sandra with the sunken-in-cheeks and eyes wide open in the picture seems now to be a ghost from the past.  "I see it both ways now. On one hand it sucks because I do not have my family in my life but on the other hand I am so proud of myself with the obstacles I have overcome.  People recognizing how far I've come…this helps me to reach my goals and motivates me to keep pushing forward." School being the most important for Sandra.

There is no picture of Sandra in this article. We do not need because we can see youth like her throughout our community from the mall, to the streets, to our neighbourhoods. On any given night 65,000 young people in Canada are without a place to call home. They all have a story and a face, so the next time they come across your path, think of Sandra and please do not look away.

Stepping Stones finances itself solely by donations. Help them help children at risk, for more information please visit www.woodshomes.ca/site/PageNavigator/programs/street_services/programs_stepping.html.

Jasmin  was born in Germany and is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She worked for several years as a freelance radio broadcaster in Sydney/Australia and as a social worker at a homeless shelter in Calgary. Jasmin came to Fort McMurray in 2014 where she currently works on her film and writes stories about the people living in Wood Buffalo.

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