Kindness, support, tolerance and respect. These are the ideas many of us associate with what it means to be a family. For some, however, childhood is more defined by a lack of fundamentals than a surplus. Fortunately, kindness can still be found outside the home. In fact, it’s our neighbours, friends and community leaders that are often the ones who show us just how powerful acts of compassion can be.
Sarah grew up in government housing near Kingsway and Victoria. Her childhood was marred by abuse, complicating her understanding of what it meant to be loved. That is, until a group of fellow eleven-year-old girls confronted Sarah about what she had been through, a simple but infinitely meaningful gesture that helped shape Sarah into the person she is today.
“I wanted to ask for help, but I was told I’d end up in foster care and be treated worse.”
Spurred on by her father’s irresponsible spending habits, Sarah’s family moved around every year because they had difficulty paying rent. He worked night shifts and slept during the day, forcing Sarah to be quiet out of fear of being yelled at. Her parents eventually separated, placing the family in government housing, where Sarah began to help her mother care for both her younger siblings.
“Life got better because I didn’t have this frightening father figure who was threatening me all the time,” says Sarah over the phone from her home in Vancouver. “But we also struggled financially.”
Worried about her daughter, Sarah’s mother began taking her family to the Family Dinner Program at United Way supported-Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House. From there, Sarah was enrolled in a pre-teen group for young girls.
“I was meeting all these new people and they were kind and loving… It showed me what else was out there.”
The newfound safe space was a far cry from Sarah’s own home. As she became more comfortable in her new surroundings, Sarah joined additional activities offered by the neighbourhood house. Volunteering with children and seniors taught Sarah about the world, widening her perspective and slowly helping her move away from the weight of her own history.
“At one point my new friends would give me compliments. I wasn’t used to people saying nice things unless they wanted something from me.”
Recognizing Sarah’s insecurities, the group of girls at the neighbourhood house spoke to their group leader, telling them that they hoped to confront Sarah about her lack of confidence. “It came out in little bits,” says Sarah. “I started to realize that people really are kind. Sure, there are some bad people, but it’s all about finding those who will love and support you.”
What ensued was the first step in Sarah lowering her guard. The group began talking about their shared experiences and individual journeys. “It was hard for me to open up and say how I was treated at home… My mom who did everything to protect me didn’t realize everything I was going through… My mom really relied on me to help her… I started to realize that people loved me.”
“Real families support one another; they use the skills they have to help each other… Giving back helps you realize that. When everyone is pitching in, it really is better for everyone.”
After taking part in Cedar Cottage’s programs for just under a year, Sarah had made lifelong friends and began undoing the web of fear that had been built up since her birth. Sleepovers, fundraisers, and support became a regular part of her life and Sarah soon began to open herself to the kindness we hope to associate with friends and family. To this day, Sarah keeps in touch with her two close friends from her first year at Cedar Cottage, one who still volunteers on the board of the Vancouver Neighbourhood house. Now married with her own daughter, Sarah doesn’t plan to stop visiting her local neighborhood houses anytime soon.
“I love taking my daughter to the family programs, it’s my second home, my extended family. A lot of the people that worked there when I was a kid still work there now.”
Even when homes are marked with violence and abuse, there are still incredible people in the world who can help us see that true kindness exists. Fortunately, Sarah and many other kids have found these people at Vancouver’s Neighbourhood Houses and local Boys & Girls Clubs, both of which are funded by United Way of the Lower Mainland. United Way researches the essential needs of each community, to identify where your donations will show the greatest results, ultimately building towards a vision of a healthy, caring inclusive community for all.
“Supporting after school programs through the United Way isn’t just about providing a space for kids to go, it’s about giving kids a place to grow, share, learn, laugh, and love.”