Walk with me: the first step is engaging at a human level with a compassionate, listening ear.

Author:Storring, Kathryn
Position::Ontario's "House of Friendship"


THE WORDS on the back of the business card say so much: Belong & Thrive. For staff at House of Friendship, a social service charity based in Waterloo Region, Ont., these words are much more than an inspirational motto. They are a reminder that helping people in need by providing food, shelter, addiction services and community centre programming is just the beginning. Meaningful change draws from a much deeper well.

This is an agency where the 150 staff and 1,000 volunteers don't talk about fixing problems or delivering services. They talk about "walking with" those seeking help, and about how "everyone has a seat at the table." Now add the agency's list of core values compassion, inclusion, justice, dignity and hope.

"When someone walks through our doors, we do not engage them as a client, as a number, as an addict, as a homeless person," says executive director John Neufeld. "We engage them at a human level with a name and a story."

"Engage" is another key word in the House of Friendship belief system. With it come "empower" and "equip." Community is the other important component. The agency expresses its vision as "a healthy community where all can belong and thrive."

Neufeld explains: "The minute you start walking with people and enabling them to be part of a community, everything changes because then they belong; then there's purpose, and then they feel like they matter."

He knows from experience that when that happens, people find ways to reach out to others.

"Thrive isn't about making millions of dollars," Neufeld says. "Thrive is quite simply finding what your gifts are and finding a meaningful way to connect those gifts and contribute to the community around you."

House of Friendship was founded in 1939 by a local women's prayer group that wanted to reach out to transient men. Today, staff and supporters are diverse, and its innovative programming touches more than 42,000 people each year.

Neufeld is passionate--and compassionate--about the work, and he asks big questions of the rest of us.

"We all need to look in the mirror and ask: what is it about the society and community we have built that would allow individuals to be on the margins and not feel like they belong?"

He also challenges us to consider our own doubts and insecurities--and what it means to be shielded by jobs, material goods or personal support networks.

"The people we serve have been stripped of everything," Neufeld points out. "So their brokenness is so raw, it's right in front of you, it's in your face. And that's threatening to us. So it's easier to say, 'I'm not like that,' 'I'm better than that.' 'I would never do that that.'"

But what if the unthinkable hits our friends or family--job loss or mental health issues, for example. How would we want them to be treated?

For Neufeld, the answer is straightforward. We wouldn't just want them to survive, we would want them to heal, to thrive, to regain a foothold in the community.

For Steve Gosselin, the seeds of healing were deceptively simple acceptance without judgment; having someone really listen; receiving a supportive hug.

The seeds of addiction were much more complex.

Gosselin is a carpenter, public speaker, respected volunteer--and in recovery from drug addiction. "There are people who no way on Earth would believe I am sober today and doing what I am doing," he says.

He grew up on a military base in an overtly macho world. Hard drinking was common in his home; so was physical, emotional and verbal abuse.

For a boy, one lesson ran deep: "Never, ever do real men ask for help," Gosselin notes. Even when things go horribly wrong.

And things did go wrong at age 13 when he was sexually assaulted. As if the emotional uncertainty of an abusive home was not enough, now the boy carried a crushing secret. He turned to alcohol--and drank to the point of blacking out.

"I drank because there was nowhere else to run," Gosselin recalls.

Over the coming years, however, he did find another place to run--street drugs, which he abused for 20 years. Even a positive in his life--a passion for carpentry--had a dark side. He was a workaholic. A need for perfection, for control, haunted him, even when he had his own company. He compensated with drug use. Lying and stealing came with it.

When his family finally convinced him to get help, the first rehab opening...

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