Sunday, March 09, 2008

Respite from the streets
Feb. 22, 2008

We’re an unusual group of travellers assembling on this rainy morning outside Our Place street drop-in, and we’re bound for an unlikely destination: A nun’s retreat in East Sooke.
We load into the rental van with our morning faces on, some of us just waking up and others so worn out from being up all night that they’re practically asleep in their seats before the van even gets moving.
In the driver’s seat: Margaret O’Donnell, the good-hearted woman who is leading us on this adventure. O’Donnell worked with Our Place to launch the monthly retreats to Glenairley last April, moved to action by findings of a regional spiritual-health survey that identified spirituality as the missing piece in the recovery process for people living on or near the streets.
Beside her sits Lynn, a newcomer who is clearly anxious about being there. Margaret pats her hand and keeps her close. Fred and Ginette cuddle up in the next row of seats, having become a couple since the last time I ran into them at November’s retreat.
Then there’s me and Dave, and Kenny and Annie behind us. Annie’s a newcomer, too, and for a while gets on a few people’s nerves with her random and somewhat relentless conversational style. But her stories - one moment about the actress Fran Drexler, the next about her dream of a world where the ice cream never stops - are too humorous to resist for long, and she soon has us laughing.
Tyson and Marco sit in the far back. They’re the youngsters in the crowd - Tyson is just 22. He was breaking horses at a girlfriend’s family ranch in Alberta not too long ago, and Marco was making a good buck driving trucks. But things change fast once addiction takes hold.
The drive takes the better part of an hour. Conversation bounces from RV parks to lottery wins to favourite radio stations, and then to epic tales of hitchhiking across the country. Marco says he made it from St. John’s, Nfld. to Port Hardy in just four days.
Annie, 62, talks of trying to survive the next three years so she can start collecting a pension and maybe afford a place to live. “There’s no place for old women,” she says.
Fifteen of us eventually converge on Glenairley, a 24-hectare jewel of a property owned by the Sisters of St. Ann. Aging nuns used to retire to the big house on the Glenairley site, but these days the property is leased by the Centre for Earth and Spirituality, which has kindly provided access to O’Donnell since the retreats began.
Group leaders Karl and Tim greet us at the door as we arrive. Inside, the fire is already crackling, and the smells of breakfast are in the air. Later, we’ll tuck into a mountain of sweet-and-sour meatballs and homemade fruit pies for lunch, prepared the day before by two hard-working volunteers who are friends of O’Donnell.
How the day unfolds for people is ultimately up to them. Some head outside, to walk the trails or marvel at the little brook bustling through the forest behind the house. Others look for a warm chair to curl up in and get some badly needed sleep, or someone to play a round of crib with.
The loose structure of the day lets people find their own way through the quiet to a spiritual place. But O’Donnell does have a couple requirements of the group.
Chores, for one. Everyone attending the retreat is assigned two chores, whether to hustle food to the table, wash the kitchen floor after a meal, or whatever else might be needed to ensure the beautiful old house is restored to spotlessness by day’s end at 3 p.m. O’Donnell also asks people to gather in the dining room in mid- morning and again in the afternoon, to share and reflect on what the day has brought them.
Today, conversation turns to whether a CBC reporter should be allowed to come to the March retreat. Yes, the group decides. United Way funding for the retreats runs out in April, and media attention might attract other funders. The dream is for an overnight retreat: “This is a wonderful place to be,” says Kenny, “but the time’s too short.”
As the day winds down, we gather one last time on the front porch before the drive back into the city. Annie asks for a hymn, and we sing Amazing Grace. I’m still humming it as the van pulls up downtown and its passengers disperse to the streets.


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