Renee Sullivan, a Safe House team leader, and Brooke, a teenage artist, gaze at a work Brook created for the Spring Art Walk.


Renee Sullivan, a Safe House team leader, and Brooke, a teenage artist, gaze at a work Brooke created for the Spring Art Walk.

April 18, 2016

It is not surprising Brooke sometimes speaks in treatment terms like "shame messages" when she tries to tell her story. They are negative things about herself that her brain tells her.

She has been through a lot.

At just 19, Brooke has lived on the street and been to four treatment centres, after spiraling into mental illness and addiction at the tender age of 12.

It was also at age 12 that she discovered what would be her saving grace: art and writing.

Brooke displayed her art to the public for the first time at the Spring Art Walk at the University of Alberta's Telus Atrium on April 8.

The event showcases the art of young people from Catholic Social Services' ministries who have lived on the street and faced different forms of exploitation.

Art has helped Brooke cope.

"I didn't know where to turn for a really long time so I kind of absorbed everything to do with art and writing. That was how I started to express myself and tell my story to the world in a way that wasn't so upfront," she said.

Her work often includes messages of hope she wishes someone had spoken to her when she was struggling. They are messages like "Life gets better," "Peoples' minds change and we need to be alive to see that happen."

"These things saved my life," she says of the words embellished across a number of canvasses she created. "I make them to tell people that are reading it or looking at it little messages of hope."

The words are more powerful than any card I have ever read at Hallmark, one person remarked.

Born in Edmonton to a teenage mom, Brooke lived a hard life until her struggling single mother met her stepdad who moved them to St. Albert.

"For a long time we were on welfare, so I went from that kind of culture to very rich suburbia. It was a bit of a culture shock," she said.

She started using drugs and alcohol.

"I used it to cope with a lot of the traumas that have happened in my life. Different forms of abuse."


In Grade 7 she had to take an art class. From the first project she did, she fell in love with art completely.

"I could just let myself go every time I was in front of a canvas or had a pencil in my hand."

She did a piece with a little girl screaming, but out of her mouth a monster flowed out. On the bottom she wrote: "It's a part of the times when you're sick in the mind."

"That was a perfect representation of what I was going through at the time. I felt so isolated, and I felt like I was crazy. But I didn't have anyone in my life to really reflect that having mental illnesses doesn't make you crazy."

By 16, she had made her way to Edmonton's inner city, living on the street, off and on. She was in the downtown Edmonton drug detox when she hit rock bottom.

"I got to a point where I didn't want to live but I didn't wanna die either. So I knew I needed to change, and I needed help to do that."

She stumbled upon Safe House, a temporary residential shelter for at-risk youth. They accepted her into the program.

A few weeks later, Renee Sullivan, a team leader at Safe House mentioned the Art Walk and asked Brooke if she wanted to do any art for it.

"Obviously I said 'Yes,'" said Brooke. "I had put art down for a while, drifted away from it."

"Now that I'm in recovery, I absolutely love it. It's the only way that I really stay sane."

A partnership with St. Joseph's College, the idea for Art Walk started in 2014, when Sullivan was looking for ways to engage at-risk youth and Brittney White, director of campus ministry, was looking for volunteer placements for students at St. Joseph's.

They started unstructured creativity workshops which see youth in six CSS ministries gather with volunteers at the college's Newman Centre every second Friday. The workshops include food and art supplies for the young people to make art to take home or to be displayed at the annual Spring Art Walk showcase.

Seeing their art displayed has helped the teens see a higher sense of mastery, said Sullivan.

"When people come to view their art they get really excited that people take the time to come see something that they've made.

"If everybody feels a sense of mastery and they feel like they're really good at something, then they're whole in that area," she said, explaining one of the aims of the project.

The fundraising event also fosters a sense of generosity in the young people.

"If everyone has the ability to give back without wanting to receive something, that's a sense of generosity," said Sullivan.

The inaugural Art Walk in 2015 raised $4,000. Half of the proceeds go to the artists and half goes to the Sign of Hope campaign. Pieces sold in the range of $10 to $100 each.


Bruce Klanke, vice president of community engagement at CSS, said the partnership with St. Joseph's College has been formative to the Sign of Hope's three community engagement asks for prayer, volunteering and donating.

People have been praying for the Art Walk and the volunteers from St. Joseph's College have been "instrumental" in making the program happen, he said. "That's a tremendous generosity of heart."

Costs for the creativity workshops have also been supported by donors who have said they specifically want the money to go to the program.

"So this is something that really resonates with our community."