When I started the Grasslands Community Trail Project in 1995 a colleague encouraged me to apply for a grant. Now, twenty years later, I find myself applying for further funding to complete this final phase and walk away into my golden years of retirement. You might ask what environmental education has to do with mentoring and peer support. Sometimes I wonder myself how a seemingly simple task, designing an interpretive trail through the grasslands and forests morphed into Building Bridges in the Community and HOME/LESS/MESS, a dramatic production which brought stories of homelessness out of the darkness.
It was another “happy accident” in life that evolved into an amazing journey that still invigorates me and drives my passion. As I reflect on the obstacles and roadblocks encountered on this trail I am reminded of the smiles of joy on the faces of the many hard working volunteers, young and old alike, from all walks of life. This trail would not exist without them. Each time I've been discouraged and downhearted about finishing, getting the job done, an agency, business organization or individual has stepped forward to help. It's just lately that financial resources and my own personal energy seem to have dried up. The team of volunteers, however, continues to thrive.
The Love and Support of Family and Friends
I have hiked and camped with family and friends for as long as I can remember. We were always going for outings as children. I remember one cross-country trip somewhere on the prairies. My Dad and I set up camp in a raging thunderstorm...two canvas tents in twenty minutes flat! Mum and the four younger ones were safe and sound as a result of our hard work and expertise. I felt like an adult at thirteen. It was a rite of passage.
The woodlands and fields of southern Ontario were my playground as a kid. Living on an air force base we tried to get away from military life as often as possible. Scouts/guides, churches, schools and other community organizations provided recreational opportunities for young people. We lived next to meadows and woods on the shores of Lake Ontario... prime real estate at our disposal. We played all the sports in season every year. Scrub baseball in the spring, swimming in the summer, football in the fall and, of course, ice hockey in the eastern winters on the frozen lakes and ponds. Those that were fortunate enough to have the money played organized hockey in the arena. We were actively engaged in the outdoors most of the time. This is where I learned to value freedom to do what you wanted, when you wanted...much like retirement now.
It wasn't until adolescence that the spell was broken. High school was hell as an air force brat, largely due to the death, by suicide, of my best friend and confidante/protector, Dale. It wasn't until much later that I realized what a profound impact both having and losing such a good friend had on my future. We left air force life shortly after and moved west, back home to where I was born. It was the sixties. I had difficulties keeping a job, making friends and sustaining relationships with family. I ran away from home and lived on the streets for a short time. I didn't settle down until my mid-twenties when I re-discovered those values and beliefs from my upbringing and re-connected with family and friends.
Hard work and good fortune helped me along the way. Now I find myself, in my sixties, trying to raise funds to complete a project started over twenty years ago. I am getting tired of expending my own resources and energy, making slow progress, thinking of quitting, packing it in, letting others shoulder the load. I continue to be encouraged by the support of my peers when they listen to my stories and begin to understand the significance and potential of, literally and figuratively, building bridges in the community. One of my co-workers and friends is eighty-seven years old. I work alongside him and I tell myself, I'm not done yet. Working together towards a common goal for intrinsic reward is a wonderful thing.
Asking for Help
It requires a great deal of courage to actually request assistance, especially from family and friends. They all have their own lives to live. We don't want to be a burden, cause a fuss, offend anyone. We try to appear to others like ducks; calmly skimming along the surface of life but paddling like crazy to get to where we want to go. Then we realize, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flash or epiphany that we will not be successful in reaching our goal without help from others. Unfortunately, for our personal health and well-being, we wait too long or don't ask at all. We become overly concerned with rejection, get discouraged and depressed. Very little ends up being accomplished when we find ourselves in this state. Sometimes we need to accept the possibility of failure before we find the strength to ask for help from others.
The Grasslands Community Trails Project
In June of 1995, I was guiding a group of school children on a trek through the grasslands and forests to our beloved McQueen Lake Environmental Center for an overnight stay as a class celebration. It was late afternoon. The dappling sunlight created long shadows through the giant spruce and brilliant wildflowers. We were on an ancient rock slide. The granite boulders were tumbled together like huge rolled dice. Among the rocks were gaping crevasses hidden from the waning light. The group had been hiking, mostly uphill in the heat, for over five hours. We were completely tired out, like pack horses returning to the corral after a hard work day... perfect conditions for serious injury. Our leader Matt, a volunteer fireman and rugby player, was determined, as he plodded on, to reach our goal at the end of the compass line he set at the start. You might expect grumbling and whining, maybe some cursing of the teachers for this crazy idea. There was not one complaint, that I heard anyway. We made it to the security and comfort of the center and collapsed on the wooden bunks. I remember standing on that rock slide, making a promise to build a safer, more enjoyable route. I didn't think it would take me twenty years.
I was bursting with pride over the strength and resilience of our team when we hiked back down the following day. Some students and adults had taken the option of getting a ride home, most of them came back down the trail in the heat of the day. We lost a couple of adults with sore feet and backs, others jumped in to take their place. I learned that young and old alike, given the opportunity to attain a goal together, can face and survive significant challenges. The students taught the teachers on that day!
One girl, a high school volunteer from the leadership program, was right beside me on the way down. When we high fived at the end of the trail, hot and tired, out of breath, I noticed she was missing a shoe and a sock on her right foot, which was cut and bleeding. I asked her when her shoe went missing, concerned about the condition of her foot. Apparently the shoe had “blown up” just before we started down through the lower grasslands. I asked her if she was OK. A broad grin cracked her sun-burned face, “I'm just fine!” she stated proudly.
Over the years, in my spare time, I hiked the trails. Friends and family soon tired and no longer accompanied me. A loosely structured group of student and adult volunteers, who became known as the TrailBlazers, comprised the occasional work parties. Signposts were installed, kiosks built, pit toilets dug and log bridges constructed across McQueen Creek in an area, known on the old maps as the Blue Ravine. The major financial contributors during the initial phases were the Kamloops Blazers Sports Foundation and TD Friends of the Environment. Then, suddenly, in 2007, things changed. The Kamloops Blazers, who had enjoyed years of success as a community organization, was sold to private interests. TD Friends of the Environment Foundation was no longer interested in funding the project. Private landowners, strata councils and other institutions like the Nature Conservancy of Canada and School District #73 Kamloops/Thompson restricted public access through their property. Then the grasslands and forest through which hikers and cyclists traveled became Lac du Bois Grasslands Provincial Park. An expensive sub-division of custom homes, serviced by a private road, had been built by a developer near the City of Kamloops trail head. It looked like the Grasslands Community Trail was not going to be completed. I was dejected.
Things continued normally until 2008. I had a heart attack playing hockey but didn't know it. Luckily, for me, I made a left turn to the hospital instead of a right turn home. It saved my life. During my recovery I asked for help. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I learned there is no shame in needing help from others. Every professional, each individual to whom I told my story, aided me in some way. I made new friends, listened to their stories, offered encouragement and support. I returned to the job, full time, a year later, immersing myself in the work culture. The trail project was forgotten, for now. I retired in 2012 and life took another turn. An opportunity to house-sit in Victoria allowed me to live there for a short time. Time enough to rent a loft studio in which to write and publish my first book. This had been a dream since adolescence. Remember it was the sixties, man! I fancied myself a bohemian artist.
When I returned to family life and home in Kamloops my thoughts turned to completion of the trail. Then I met Amanda, B.C. Parks Supervisor. She had heard of me through a volunteer and asked for my help. Unfortunately, a young steer had caught its hoof in the gap between the rough slats of the bridge our volunteer crew built across McQueen Creek in 1997. The animal twisted over, fell in to the creek and perished. Amanda and B.C. Parks needed a crew to re-build the bridges to B.C. Parks standards and they didn't have the human or financial resources to do it. The ranchers and other users of the Grasslands Community Trail needed to know the trail was safe for humans as well as livestock. One of the luxuries of healthy retirement is being able to accept new challenges although I had never built a bridge before. I needed the help of family and friends, again.
Building Bridges in the Community
During this time I was serving on an ad hoc committee for the Homelessness Action Plan, called No Straight Lines. We produced a dramatic piece called HOME/LESS/MESS. Six people who had experienced being homeless participated in the creation and delivery of this play. The original work was facilitated/directed by Robin Nicol and Heidi Verwey from Thompson Rivers University's Theatre Department. The five performance run to sold out audiences was a huge success even though there were a few crises along the way. The production served as an active research, service learning and mentoring model for TRU students under the guidance of Ginny Ratsoy (English) and Dawn Farough(Sociology). There was diverse community sponsorship and volunteer representation on the committee. Plans were to have a second run of the production in August of this year, however the group suffered some losses and doesn't feel it will happen. It remains to be seen.
There is a direct link to the success of HOME/LESS/MESS and building bridges across McQueen Creek in the Blue Ravine. His name is Brian. I met him when I was recuperating from my heart attack. He worked for a garage owner, emptying garbage cans and cleaning toilets. He was in a recovery program after being injured on the job and needed to keep busy. He was really interested in volunteering on the trail project even though he had never built a bridge either. Then along came Shane, an original member of the TrailBlazers, a parent of an ex-student. He had fallen on hard times, in the middle of a divorce. He wanted to get out of town and “work on something worthwhile”. Between the three of us, each using their own individual skill set, we worked together and completed three bridges, on time and on budget. We had some help from B.C. Parks and RONA Building Centre.
We continue to work as a team, building kiosks and benches, restoring the work sites to their natural condition and maintaining the trail. Final completion is scheduled for October 2015. When either man is asked why they volunteer on the trail project rather than working for an hourly wage in town or in camp, they both smile and respond, “when I'm volunteering the pay is way better than any job!
Helping the Homeless and the Marginalized
Shane, Brian and many others, including myself, have gained immensely from participating in the Grasslands Community Trail Enhancement Project and HOME/LESS/MESS. Three of the cast members and volunteer crew who were homeless at the start of the project are now housed. Funds were raised to sustain participants in the future. Opportunities and choices were provided that wouldn't have been available without funding and other support from the community. Mentoring and service learning experiences were available to TRU students and community volunteers. The concept of homelessness and its associated issues was presented to the public using various media.
People in the production and other volunteers like Brian and Shane, felt they didn't have a voice or a story to tell. They were able, with support from others in a safe environment, to clearly, powerfully,articulate their personal journey and hardships. Collaborative, life-long learning occurred within transformational relationships. Cathartic events took place. Whether one was involved and engaged as an active participant or a support person their lives were enriched by involvement in these projects. Individual self-esteem, group efficacy, confidence and trust were re-inforced. Relationships were strengthened. A feeling of common-ness, a sense of belonging was prevalent. Each voice was heard by a larger audience. Most of the volunteers felt they had been heard as well. Each benefited from their engagement in the projects through meaningful face to face dialogue and real life/real time interactions. Through helping others we helped ourselves.
Volunteerism Pays Off
In May of 2014, B.C. Parks awarded a contract to the Grasslands Community Trail Enhancement Project Phase 3.3. We were to finish the bridges to B.C. Parks specifications, restore the work sites to their natural state, instal signs, build a kiosk with map and information for users and paint the outhouse.
Brian, one of the hardest workers I've ever seen, was still energized by his acting role in HOME/LESS/MESS. Shane accepted the finality of his divorce and went north for work in the camps. He was temporarily out of work and utilized his tools and talents to build benches that were works of art. Al, the eighty-seven year old, hoisted a timber to his shoulder and said, “Lets get this job done!” Successful completion of the task was in sight. I was amazed and grateful for this turn of events.
Last week I guided a group of Grade 7's, our daughter's class, from an overnight stay at McQueen Lake to Kamloops and home. I thought, again, about the reasons that projects like Building Bridges in the Community are so important to our health and well-being. We forge inter-generational relationships attaining a common goal safely, together. We strengthen our sense of connection to others, to a higher purpose; meaningful physical work for no extrinsic reward. Other team members care for us, “have our backs”. Opportunities for leadership and peer support, modeling, mentoring are presented. Participating in activities like these improves our mental health and attitudes. We experience less anxiety and worry and gain a more balanced approach to interaction with agencies and their employees. Concrete and tangible rewards are available as well as less measurable more intrinsic outcomes; three strong, safe bridges across a creek in a park and public sharing of individual personal stories, for example. Working alongside others as a team within a social structure or hierarchy decreases alienation and results in a less us vs them negative thinking mind set. We share values and beliefs, inner-most thoughts and feelings, in confidence and mutual trust. We make an unselfish contribution to creating a living legacy for the future, paying forward to pay back.
If one of our goals as a society is to eliminate homelessness, decrease alienation and separation from one another then we must continue studying the essence, or the reasons and contributing factors of these phenomena. Listen to the stories of those who are homeless/alienated/marginalized. Perhaps by analyzing and reflecting on each individual story we can identify common causal factors in our lives together. This would enable us to work towards lessening their negative influence for those at-risk. From building bridges in a park to a stage production about homelessness...what a journey! A sense of belonging, connectedness, results from doing meaningful work together for the sheer joy of it. We can work and play together, help each other attain a common goal through collaboration and cooperation, just like when we were kids setting up a tent in a raging, prairie thunderstorm. Team work is awesome!