Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 14, 2005
A front-line sanctuary
Spiritually and emotionally wounded police find healing at Diakonos House
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
When police officers face personal crises, they often end up sleep-ing in their cars or in the police station. Now, thanks to a group of concerned Christian officers, the keepers of the peace have a safe place to go during stressful times.
Welcome to Diakonos House, a home away from home for members of the city police, RCMP, firefighters and emergency services personnel in northern Alberta.
Located at an undisclosed site in south Edmonton, Diakonos House operates like a safe house for peace officers facing crises such as marital breakdowns, substance abuse, medical emergencies.
The five-bedroom house features all the amenities and comforts of home, including a living room with a television set, books, plants, paintings, an exercise bike and a computer.
Managed by a volunteer board of directors and funded by donations, Diakonos House - the Greek word means service or servant - is modelled after a similar residence in Calgary that opened in April 2000.
While the Calgary house has had more than 50 guests in its nearly five years of operation, the Edmonton house has had nine residents since it was started by a group of Christian police officers in August 2003.
Currently there are no residents, except for Benedictine Sister Mary Coswin, the volunteer house attendant.
Coswin, who also does retreat work at Providence Renewal Centre, lives full time at the house and is in charge of day-to-day operations.
"I'm the one who cares for the people in the house and the house itself.
"And this is my house. I call it my house because I live here all the time. I have my own room and when people come, they have their own bedroom and they live in the house with me."
The idea of Diakonos House began when Calgary police chaplain Kevin McInnes realized that some police officers slept in their vehicles or at the station during stressful times. He came up with the idea of having a sanctuary. The Calgary Police Association agreed and bought a house in that city to serve as a sanctuary.
In the fall of 2003 a committee of Christian police officers formed in Edmonton with the idea of setting up a similar facility here. The first resident showed up on Nov. 8, 2003. Eight other residents have followed, including one who stayed for nine months while trying to save his marriage.
"The police officers that established this house saw the need particularly to save marriages because police work is very hard on marriages," explained Coswin.
Unlike Calgary, however, the Edmonton house is rented at a cost of about $2,000 a month, including utilities. The Calgary-based Diakonos Peace Officer Retreat Society provided an initial donation to get the facility off the ground. Additional donations of furniture, housewares, home appliances and cash have helped the facility to continue operating.
Diakonos Edmonton is currently trying to raise enough money to put a down payment on its own house. The non-profit society that operates the house includes retired and serving members of the RCMP, city police and firefighters.
The operation is ecumenical "in the sense that there are no religious boundaries or requirements and the board members are of different denominations," Coswin said. "We have Catholics, we have Protestants and we have evangelicals on the board - men and women."
Board chair, Staff Sgt. Bill Horn, was unavailable for an interview.
All stays are confidential and residents come to the house through a contact person on the board who brings them into the residence and remains in contact with him or her throughout their stay.
Few people know the identities of the residents who must sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to reveal the house's location.
As house attendant, Coswin welcomes the guests and tries to make them feel at home, eating meals with them as often as possible. She does the shopping and most of the cooking and cleaning but, as the sister points out, "The house is not a hotel where somebody makes their bed and does their laundry.
"If I cook, maybe they clean up and maybe they take out the garbage or help shovel the snow. It's as natural as it can be and there are no rules about coming and going. They have a key. It's meant to be a home away from home. And my job there is to be a hospitable presence to the men and women who are in need."
Originally just for stressed-out police officers, Diakonos House expanded its role to include all first respondents, be they emergency services personnel, paramedics or firefighters.
To stay at the house, a person must have counselling in place. They need to be dealing with their issues.
"They stay at the house if they need time for a transition," explained Coswin. "I had one person stay with me for a month while he was making a transition after being in a program for addictions. They also come because they have marriage problems. The rate of divorce is 80 per cent. And that's the concern of the board because the board members are all police officers, fire department and RCMP. They know what it's like. They've lived it."
According to the sister, some police officers facing marital problems spend up to $200 a weekend in hotels because they don't know where else to turn.
At Diakonos House they pay $10 a day for room and board if they can afford to.
So why is the house empty right now? "Maybe because some (police officers) are afraid to admit they have a problem," Coswin speculated. "Police admit one of their biggest problems is to admit they need help."
Others might be afraid they might have religion pushed at them, which Coswin said simply doesn't happen. "I don't try to preach anything to the people who stay here but it's understood that this is a Christian home and that it is because of a belief in God that this service is being offered."
But if a guest wants to discuss faith, Coswin won't shy away. "Whatever is talked about is at their initiative. I'm here just to listen and be a friend."
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