WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Sr. Mary Clare Stack is coordinator of Catholic Social Services' parish relations program.
Prior to the launch of the Welcome Home program, many newly-housed people knew little about how to interact with mainstream society. A turnaround in that regard is a clear success of the new program, said Sister Mary Clare Stack.
"Individuals, for example, say, 'I was scared to leave my little place, my new little place that I love, but I am afraid to go out and connect with other people,'" said Stack, parish relations coordinator with Catholic Social Services.
Welcome Home is a volunteer-based program that provides companionship to individuals and families who have been housed by Housing First agencies as part of Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.
Operated by Catholic Social Services, Welcome Home celebrated its first year of operation June 24. Since its official launch in March 2012, the program has been an overwhelming success.
Stack recalled one previously homeless man who had not been in contact with two of his brothers for many years. Two volunteers took him to a library, and showed him how to find people via the Internet and how to use Skype. The brothers were soon reconnected.
"One of his brothers sent him a computer, and he now Skypes all the time with his two brothers. The family has come together through the volunteer Welcome Home program," said Stack.
Pat Acheson is a volunteer with the program. She has been meeting with her newly-housed friend for the past six months.
"We visit with him, we meet him for coffee, and sometimes we go out for dinner. We went to the IMAX one time. We've talked about going out to the Devonian Gardens," said Acheson.
Volunteers make a six-month commitment, two to three hours per week. They engage in meaningful activities with program participants. They might chat over coffee, go for a leisurely walk, or attend a sporting event or festival. The volunteers provide companionship to reduce the loneliness and social isolation faced by many newly-housed individuals.
"A rule for safety purposes is that we are supposed to be as anonymous as we could be in terms of our personal information," said Acheson.
She started out meeting once a week, but the level of involvement can vary.
"We're going to be doing some evaluation because six months is sort of a trial period. Soon we'll find out from our match whether he wants to continue or if we're doing him any good," said Acheson.
Other successes are people who had been incredibly lonely and now they have real friends. They are starting a new phase in their lives. With these volunteers, they can develop genuine, healthy friendships.
To celebrate the program's one-year anniversary, people gathered at the Carrot Coffeehouse, 9351-118 Ave. on June 24. The celebration was an evening of cupcakes, coffee and live music from folk artists Alex Vissia and Dead Red Pine.
The first participant/volunteer match was made July 12, 2012. Matches to date total 24, which means 48 volunteers paired with 24 newly-housed participants.
Now organizers look forward to expanding the reach of the program to include other populations such as seniors, single fathers and individuals leaving sexual exploitation.
Stack would like to see students from Edmonton's various colleges and universities take their practicums volunteering with Welcome Home. She'd also like to see couples or two friends volunteering.
"Friends will say, 'We must get together' but it doesn't happen. When one of them says he wants to volunteer with Welcome Home, and says, 'Will you come with me?" it not only enriches their friendship but it also reaches out to this other individual," said Stack.
The program has been funded primarily through Enbridge Inc., which provided $175,000. That money runs out Jan. 31, 2014. They are already looking for other funding to maintain and expand the program.
A great sadness for Stack would be to see the program end after these participants have put their trust in these volunteers.
Sign of Hope will provide ongoing funding, but that is inconsequential to what some larger corporations and other groups could provide.
Ellen Bremner has been the manager of volunteer resources for Catholic Social Services for 24 years.
"It's a pretty do-able volunteer placement. Volunteers have to complete nine hours of training before they are matched. The training is about boundaries, how to work with street people, intercultural sensitivity, a lot of those things," said Bremner.
Goals for the future include greater promotion and awareness about the program initiatives, and development of more comprehensive evaluation tools and research methods concerning the outcomes of the project.
"This past year has basically just been working out the glitches and seeing how we can improve the program, and continuing to market the program to the community. We've already seen some very great success stories with some of the participants and the volunteers they've been matched with," said Bremner.
The volunteers have provided positive feedback. They have learned a lot about a city demographic that would otherwise remain unknown to them. The program has dispelled a lot of the myths and stereotypes that people have about the homeless.
"The biggest thing that I see is in the individuals who are being helped by the volunteers, the confidence that is being built in them," said Bremner. They show increased self-esteem and feel more at home in the community.