Cockroaches scurry in all directions from underneath the television set as Gina Hawkins slides it away from the living room wall.
Her eight-year-old son Phoenix, in his Spider-Man shirt and jeans, concentrates on the moving screen as he plays the video shooting game “Call of Duty.”
As if participating in a carnival version of the game, he stamps out the bugs with his black sneakers while continuing to blast away at the enemy.
His five-year-old sister Elizabeth sits on a couch, spooning yogurt into her mouth. She spots another bug and becomes agitated.
“Found one, found one,” she blurts out, pointing at a cockroach zigzagging up the wall. “Phoenix, hurry up, hurry up—get it.”
It’s 7:30 on a Wednesday morning in June.
Today is “spraying day” at Hawkins’ townhouse in the B.C. Housing projects on Raymur Street in Strathcona. A pest control company is expected later this morning to fumigate for roaches.
Hawkins, a 39-year-old single mom on welfare, has been busy packing clothes, kitchen utensils and food into plastic totes and laundry tubs. She’s moved the furniture to the centre of each room in the two-level, five-bedroom home.
Some of the stuff is stacked on her second-floor patio, which is a mess of children’s bicycles, folding chairs, a bag of garbage, cigarette butts and an empty Coke can.
Down below is her yard: a patch of dirt and a red-leafed tree enclosed by an algae-stained lattice fence that keeps in a deflated inflatable pool, more bicycles, a barbecue and a walkway of rubber mats leading to the kitchen door.
Outside the fence, in the parking lot, are two blue dumpsters where, on this morning, a man in a hoodie roots through the garbage to add to his bloated bag of empties; he surfaces triumphantly with two cans.
“It’s just my luck to get the place next to the dumpsters,” says Hawkins, who woke at six to ensure Phoenix got dressed, ate some yogurt and took pills to keep his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in check.
Hawkins has lived in the Raymur housing projects, a three-block long mix of low and highrise brown brick homes that also stretch along Campbell Street, for four years.
In that span of time, a lot has happened in her life—some of it good, some of it bad and some of it poignant enough to set the high school dropout on a path to improve life for her family and others in the neighbourhood.
The former crack cocaine addict is the driving force behind a unique group of moms who meet weekly at the neighbouring Ray-Cam Community Centre on East Hastings Street.
Their purpose: To become more skilled parents, mentor others and stand up for themselves in one of the poorest communities in Canada.
Staff at the community centre along with counsellors, early childhood educators and consultants work with the moms to study conflict resolution and stress management. They’re also taught to communicate effectively with schools and government agencies for the betterment of their children.
Reaching out to new immigrant moms in the neighbourhood, particularly those with limited English skills, is another component of their work.
“They don’t know that there’s a place called Sunny Hill [health centre for children], they don’t know that we have nurses across the street, they don’t know that they’re allowed to ask for a clothing voucher,” says Hawkins, while searching for socks for Elizabeth.
Outside the formal structure of meetings, the focus shifts to helping a family out with a meal, or some money or babysitting. Other times, as the Courier witnessed over the past two months, it’s simply being there to listen, offer a hug and some encouraging words.
“Basically, we’re not there to judge anybody,” says Hawkins, a short, fast-talking, dark-haired woman of aboriginal descent. “We have standards and guidelines but they’re made up by us. We’re not welfare, we’re not the schools, we’re a group of moms who have a passion to get things done.”
• • • • • •
Her focus this morning—like every morning—is her kids.
She’s in her kitchen, reaching for more yogurt in the fridge when a school bus rolls up in the parking lot. It’s the bus for special needs students at Strathcona elementary.
“Phoenix!” Hawkins yells up the stairs. “Bus!”
He comes bounding down two flights with his Spider-Man backpack. Hawkins hurriedly roots through the pack to find her son’s “communications book,” which serves as a daily diary for teacher and parent to track Phoenix’s progress.
She marks down the times Phoenix is to get his methylphenidate, a drug to treat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He also has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“I craved alcohol and chicken when I was pregnant with him,” she says, then opens the door for her son. “I love you, have a good day.”
Upstairs, Hawkins’ youngest child, Mary, is awake. She’s sitting on the couch, drawing quietly in a book. Mary is three years old, the youngest of Hawkins’ six children; three live with her, an older daughter is in a highrise next door, another daughter with her grandmother and another daughter in Oliver with her father.
There are three fathers between the six kids. Why none of the men lives with Hawkins is a series of complicated stories. One of those stories is recorded in court documents and involves sexual abuse, her two eldest children and jail time.
“A lot of trauma,” she says.
That was exacerbated in April when social workers from the Ministry of Children and Families apprehended Phoenix, Elizabeth and Mary for a week.
Hawkins’ version of the story is she “tapped” Phoenix on the mouth for spitting in the house. This occurred the night before he took a ball to the face during a game of dodge ball at the community centre, leaving a welt under his eye.
Neither the school’s administrators nor ministry officials would comment on the incident. But the school confirmed Hawkins’ children were apprehended and later returned home.
“They all got this wrong,” Hawkins says. “I would never hurt my kids. This is what I’m talking about when we have to stand up for ourselves and get educated. I think a lot of people see ‘single mom on welfare,’ so she must be guilty.”
Whatever the truth, Hawkins’ décor in her home is counter to a parent prone to violence or the promotion of it: several anti-bullying posters set off in large bold type with statements such as “If you don’t speak up, you’re helping the bully” are tacked to her beige walls.
LIVING ON $2,400 A MONTH
It’s now 8:15 and Sierra, a 10-year-old neighbour, has arrived to take Elizabeth to school, which is a few blocks up the street. Their first stop will be the school’s breakfast program.
“No diva moments, please,” says Hawkins, directing her comment at Elizabeth. She’s in a dress and high heels, dancing to the kids’ hit “Party Rockers” blasting from a cellphone in her hand. “Get changed and get going.”
Five minutes later, she’s out the door.
Hawkins’ attention turns to Mary. She, too, eats some yogurt before helping place a doll house in a box to prepare for the fumigation.
They move to the bathroom, where Hawkins combs Mary’s long hair. When she’s finished, she crouches to her daughter’s eye level and gets her to repeat a mantra she picked up from a counsellor advising the moms’ group.
“I’m loved,” Mary says in a soft voice. “I’m strong, I am beautiful.”
Hand in hand, the pair strolls across the barren courtyard of the housing complex to daycare at the community centre. Hawkins doesn’t bother to lock her door. She’s still got a full house. Her 17-year-old stepson Trevor and four other teens stayed the night. Some are regular visitors.
“They like it here,” she says, taking in the overcast morning. “They like the routine, the close family setting. They’ve got somebody here who is not whacked out. Or maybe a better way to say that is, they’ve got a grown-up here.”
Hawkins provides for her family and some of the visitors on $2,400 a month from a combination of welfare and family bonus cheques. A separate government subsidy covers her daycare costs.
About $650 of the $2,400 is for rent with the balance spent on bills for hydro, cable, food, clothes, transit and the odd toy for the kids. She also contributes at least $700 to $1,000 a month to pay down a $10,000 debt she wracked up in a failed attempt to start a roofing company.
Over the years, Hawkins worked as a gas station attendant, a “downtown ambassador,” a security guard, a vineyard worker and as a door-to-door salesperson selling hats and chocolate bars.
Having to care for her three young children and suffering from osteoarthritis in her back meant a return to collecting social assistance, a reality for her since her mother become a recipient years ago.
The morning has gone smoothly, the kids are where they’re supposed to be and the pest control company is on its way. She lights a cigarette on her stoop.
“It’s a good feeling when they all get along like that in the morning. Believe me, not every morning is like that. And those are the mornings that can really test me.”
HARLEM CHILDREN’S ZONE
The roots of the moms’ group dates back to February 2011.
That’s when city council considered development plans for Northeast False Creek and what to do with $6 million in community amenity money that was to come with it.
Hawkins, Sabine Tanasiuk of Ray-Cam and Grace Tait of the community centre’s board of directors spoke at one of the public hearings at city hall.
They implored council to spend the $6 million on a network of services for inner-city children modelled after the innovative Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.
Quoting from the Harlem program’s founder, Tait told council the trio’s hope was to create a safety net in the neighbourhood “woven so tightly that no child could fall through.” She added that neither the provincial nor federal governments was interested in creating such a program.
Although Strathcona is a neighbour to Northeast False Creek and not technically eligible for the $6 million, it was Hawkins who stressed the urgency of services needed in her community.
Hawkins’ presence at city hall and zeal for change was somewhat remarkable, considering she had a crack cocaine addiction for almost two years in the 1990s and later turned to drinking before getting sober five years ago.
She stepped to the microphone in the council chambers to address Mayor Gregor Robertson and the councillors. Her voice cracked and she began to cry.
“If we are not able to get this, we believe our children are destined to fall into a life of drugs and crime—as those before have—and continue this vicious cycle. All of our children deserve the same equality that any other child would receive.”
Hawkins collected herself and then read a poem, praising Ray-Cam and how it is the only hub in the neighbourhood that gives families “a fighting chance.”
“And we would really, really benefit to have more of these successes in our community,” she concluded to applause from the audience.
• • • • • •
It is to the community centre where Hawkins returned after failing to convince council to spend the $6 million in Strathcona. (Council has yet to decide on $3 million of the community amenity money, although Coun. Raymond Louie says it’s unlikely to go to Strathcona because it is tied to property adjacent to B.C. Place Stadium).
With the guidance of Tanasiuk, a long-time advocate of families in the Downtown Eastside, and Penny Parry, the city’s former child and youth advocate, a frustrated Hawkins formed what became the moms’ group.
Regulars to the Wednesday meetings include Bessie Chambers, a mother of three boys, Patty Burke, who has a son, and Amber South, a mother of three young boys.
All are under 40, aboriginal and have a family history of poverty.
Others from the neighbourhood can’t always make the meetings but Hawkins strives to bring moms—and the occasional dad—up to date on issues.
Over the last year, the moms received personal counselling, attended a workshop titled “Nobody’s perfect” and took entry-level early childhood education training. Hawkins also volunteered as a self-described mediator in the schools, supporting parents with conflicts.
Present at today’s meeting is Parry, who helps facilitate the meetings. Despite her presence, she ensures the discussions are driven by parents.
“There is no real practical mentoring available to people in this community and you have a lot of parents under a lot of stress,” Parry says in a later interview. “So there is a real need for help of this kind. These women are natural leaders in the community and can now help other people, which is really important.”
A list of “key issues” for discussion are written in red marker on a white board in a small room at the community centre.
- Finding a pathway to work together.
- Teaching roots of empathy and acceptance.
- Recognition of signs of parents’ “last straw” and how to help.
- Addressing specific community issues prior to involving the school or school board.
- Safety strategies and plans in the school and home.
On this day, the group focuses on fine-tuning its parent-to-parent mentoring proposal before applying for grants to see it through.
The proposal needs to clearly identify how success or failure will be measured and set realistic goals for the moms to reach in their mentoring roles.
Parry poses a question to the moms: “How will we know there is an increase in parent advocacy?”
Hawkins: “When we see more active parents in the community, more moms participating in projects and more moms becoming board members.”
As the lunch hour progresses, Phoenix runs into the room. He goes to school for a half day on Wednesdays. He occupies himself on a computer while his mother continues with the meeting.
Meanwhile, the pest control company has finished spraying for bugs. But it’ll be at least another three hours before the Hawkins’ home will be safe enough for the family to return.
LEAVING RAYMUR HOUSING PROJECTS
Melanie Lecoy was one of the moms absent from that meeting in June.
The 31-year-old showed up intermittently to participate in the discussions and was there for an earlier gathering attended by the Courier.
It was during her last visit that Lecoy shared some bittersweet news: She was leaving the Raymur projects, but would only be a 20-minute bus ride away.
“We’re going to miss you around here,” Hawkins tells Lecoy. “Maybe one last hot tub party before you go?”
Hawkins’ “hot tub” is an inflatable pool that she fills with hot water from a hose connected to her laundry room tap. Lecoy and other moms often got together with Hawkins in the pool to relax. Sometimes, it was tea and muffins in the courtyard.
Truth is, Lecoy wanted to leave since last June. That’s when she was assaulted in her townhouse by the father of four of her five young children; the father of her eldest child, 13-year-old Caprice, died more than 12 years ago in a motorcycle crash near Hope.
B.C. Housing granted her request for a transfer and she gladly accepted a four-bedroom townhouse in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood on the East Side.
“It’s a new and improved place compared to where I used to live,” says Lecoy, who invited the Courier for a visit three days after she moved in. “That place I was in… I don’t think it will be livable for a long time. I feel sad for the next people moving in.”
In her three years at Raymur, she got rid of four couches and 24 mattresses because of bedbugs. The cockroaches never left.
Open drug use, discarded needles and drunks fighting outside her door was commonplace. So was the need to crank up the volume on the television to drown it all out.
“We heard sirens all the time.”
The Courier visited Lecoy on a Friday morning.
Four of her kids were still asleep—three on a pullout couch in the living room and Caprice on a bedroom floor upstairs; her nine-year-old son Keshawn just left on the school bus for Strathcona. It’s the same bus that picks up Gina Hawkins’ son, Phoenix.
Lecoy savours the quietness of the morning as she sips on a bubble tea in her sun-filled living room. The place has a new carpet smell.
“I don’t know what’s happening but everything is just falling into place for me right now,” she says and goes on to explain what life used to be like for her: a victim of sexual abuse at a young age, a drinking problem before she was a teenager and a foster kid at 13.
She’s anticipating the release of her file from the Ministry of Children and Families to put the pieces together from days gone by.
“I just want to understand myself more.”
Through it all, Lecoy graduated from Chilliwack Secondary in 2005. She had three kids by then and embarked on a career in construction, doing demolition work and traffic control.
That didn’t last.
She had two more kids and was still having a rough time with alcoholism, an addiction she connects to being a victim of sexual abuse. Ironically, it was when she moved into the Raymur housing projects that her downward direction took a U-turn. That’s where she met Hawkins and other moms. That’s where she sought help for her addiction and began thinking about a better life for her growing family.
Lecoy, who collects about $2,300 a month in income assistance, has been sober for 30 months after attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Eighteen months into her sobriety, she got a tattoo she proudly shows off on her right shoulder.
It’s a prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Lecoy is OK with the religious overtones. Three years ago, she and her family joined the appropriately named New Beginnings Baptist Church on Frances Street. Her faith, she says, gives her guidance from the turmoil.
It’s a church, as its website explains, that serves the East Side “with a burden for those who are hurt and broken, those often forgotten by society.”
The church is providing another positive for Lecoy: She is doing a practicum there to complete a 10-month family and community counselling program she enrolled in at the Native Education College. She does one-on-one counselling, organizes family dinners and outings, facilitates a group for men and women and brings in speakers. An organization affiliated with the YWCA paid her $5,000 tuition after she told them her story in a letter.
Lecoy’s ability to handle the workload and tend to five children—and stay on a sober path—is a remarkable feat, says her pastor, Joe Russell.
He describes Lecoy as a “rough diamond” and believes she has the drive and perspective to make a difference with her schooling.
“My mind reels at the idea of her being a family and community counsellor because she still needs so much counseling,” Russell says. “But then my mind says that she is the most experienced person in trauma and in what moms are going through and in what kids are going through. She’ll be dynamite, she already is.”
The morning has stretched on and the Lecoy kids are finally awake.
A friend with a van who was supposed to pick them up for school can’t make it today.
So, the bus it is.
First, it’s a round of Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes.
“Eat, please,” Lecoy says to her smiley-faced seven-year-old Markus, who is full of beans and can’t sit still.
“Finished,” he says after rapidly spooning cereal into his mouth.
Lecoy sees the bowl isn’t empty.
“No way—you need the milk for your bones. Back to the table, please.”
Markus is running laps around the kitchen and living room with his three-year-old brother Quinn. They run faster and faster and laugh harder and harder.
Six-year-old Cynthia is eating quietly at the table while the eldest of the bunch, Caprice, is playing with her phone on the couch.
The move, Lecoy says, has been good for the kids. But it’s meant some late nights and long mornings; they’ve been wired with excitement.
It was her kids and her struggles that Lecoy thought deeply about when, on a whim six months ago, she visited a local studio offering free recording time for aboriginal people.
She places a DVD in her machine.
Out pumps a hip-hop beat and there is Lecoy—her recording name is “Little Rita”—in a red Adidas jacket, faded jeans and old school runners doing what she calls spoken word.
There’s a mix of slow motion and speeded up footage of her on a transit bus, in graffiti-covered alleys and in a room at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings, “where I got sober.”
She made up the lyrics on the spot.
“…We don’t realize we’ve only got one life to live. My walk, my talk, my heart is all I’ve got to give. My love, my joy, my babies of the East Side. My babies, my babies, my five little eyes, my five little hearts, my five little cries…”
It’s a fascinating side of Lecoy, who mentions an invitation to perform at an upcoming aboriginal event. The DVD continues to play as she and her kids get ready for the walk to the bus stop. Lecoy continues singing as she goes about her new house.
“…my five little hearts, my five little cries…”
A RETURN TO RAYMUR
They all pile on the bus, taking seats at the back.
Their first stop is East Hastings and Campbell where Lecoy puts Caprice in charge of taking Quinn to daycare at Ray-Cam.
A few stops later, she gets off with Markus and Cynthia for the short walk up Princess Street to Strathcona school.
“A woman down here told me once that I was like Mother Duck with all her ducklings,” says Lecoy, with the school now in view. “When they’re all with me, I guess it kind of looks like that.”
Her hearty laugh is of the infectious kind.
It’s 10:45 when Lecoy and her kids reach the playground, where principal Margaret Jorgensen is talking to a parent during recess.
“Sorry, we’re late,” says Lecoy, who earlier told Jorgensen about her move out of the neighbourhood.
Jorgensen appears unfazed by the tardiness. She agreed to let Lecoy’s kids continue at the school to finish out the year. Lecoy leads Markus and Cynthia to their classrooms and wishes them a good day.
For the first time this morning, she is alone as she walks along East Pender Street towards the Raymur projects, her old home. She’s talking out loud about the end of the school year and what comes next for her kids. They’re always on her mind.
“If I can get a van, there’s a Christian school up on Renfrew. Next year, I’d like to put them all in there. I think it would settle them down a little bit. It can be pretty rough down here.”
Her former home is in the distance. The drab-looking complex seems out of place when compared to the well-kept character houses and colourful gardens in the neighbourhood.
It’s only been three days since she left these streets but Lecoy is already philosophical about the place she called home for three years.
“It was a real test of everything here for me—whether I would lose it, lose my kids, turn to drugs and alcohol, whether I would fail.”
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY COUNSELLING
She continues up the street to Ray-Cam where she runs into Sabine Tanasiuk, the community centre’s key provider to the moms’ group.
“Meet the light in my heavens,” she says of Tanasiuk, who shrugs off the compliment and asks how things are working out in her new home.
Caprice is now by her mom’s side. She is supposed to be in school, an alternative program run out of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
School rules prevent her from attending if she doesn’t show up by 10 a.m. so Caprice will spend the day with her mom, whose next stop is the church.
Food comes first, though.
They walk across the street to a café. Along the way, Caprice picks up a newspaper and turns to the horoscopes.
Her mom is a Virgo: “The problems you face are mostly problems you have created for yourself. Therefore, hoping that other people will resolve them for you isn’t going to work, is it? A more positive attitude plus hard work will do it though.”
They share a laugh as they enter the café. Lecoy greets Linda, the Chinese owner, in Cantonese.
“Lei-ho-ma,” she says, which translates to how are you.
They take a seat in a booth and order. It’s a sweet and sour pork dish for mom, an omelette for daughter. The turnaround is fast.
“Chez, chez, lang noi,” says Lecoy, thanking Linda as the food is set on the table.
Linda often calls Lecoy “lang noi,” which means “pretty girl.” Today, Lecoy is returning the compliment. She goes on to string a few sentences in Spanish, showing her proficiency for languages.
The bus ride to the church is a few stops from the community centre. The old dark brown stucco building is across from Woodland Park, where Lecoy and her family first met members of the church at a barbecue.
Lecoy has her own key. The church is vacant except for a cleaning lady. She opens the door to what has become her office, which overlooks the nave of the church. She gets on the phone and begins to make calls about a family day outing to Saltspring Island planned for the next day.
Success: Another person is in.
She takes a seat on a couch and reflects how far she’s come in a short time. She rattles off a list of people and agencies that have helped her along the way.
There’s Kiwassa House, where she attended a workshop called Warriors Against Violence. That’s where Dan and Joe taught her about breaking the cycle of family violence and the importance of a “time-out” when life goes sideways.
There’s Paulina at the YWCA for helping find the kids some clothes. There’s Audrey the psychologist for identifying her post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s Rusty the social worker who kept her focused. And Pastor Joe and the church, which have given so much, including a trip to a dentist to get Lecoy’s teeth fixed.
For the moms at the Raymur projects, she has this to say.
“I’m still a Raymur mom. That’s where I changed my life, that’s where I got my sobriety. Now I hope with my education, I can share and support the moms down there.”
She notes the day of the month. Another 35 days until she graduates.
A DAY IN COURT
Back at Hawkins’ townhouse, the cockroaches are still very much alive.
It’s been two weeks since the fumigation and she’s requested another visit from the pest control company.
Once again, her place is in disarray for today’s spraying.
On her calendar is a meeting at the Neighbourhood Inner City Services Society, which is across the street from Ray-Cam.
Some of the moms, staff from Ray-Cam and leaders of non-profit agencies are to discuss safety, housing, child apprehension and other issues facing the community.
Hawkins is torn—her stepson Trevor has a date in family court today. He wants her there for support. It’s to do with the custody of his one-and-a-half-year-old son.
If Hawkins can swing it, she plans to be in court on Hornby Street and return in time to catch some of the meeting.
Moms Bessie and Amber agree to join her. They board the bus with Trevor and Phoenix, who’s home from his half day of school.
The sun is out and the ride along East Hastings provides an eyeful for all aboard. The strip is alive with moms, dads, kids in strollers, the elderly, the disabled, buskers, cops, hawkers, drug users, drug dealers and dogs.
Trevor is 17 and had a child with his girlfriend, Kylie, almost two years ago. They are separated and Trevor’s appearance in court today is to request an extension of a “temporary care order.”
Essentially, he wants more time to prove to the court that he will be able to provide for his son, who is living with a great aunt.
Before court, Hawkins zeroes in on Trevor’s social worker after hearing Trevor might have to take a ministry “parent capacity test.”
“He hasn’t even had a chance to be a parent, so how can he take a test to be a parent?” she says out loud. “That’s not going to happen.”
Trevor lives with Hawkins and plans to find his own place and a job. He’s strapped for cash but will see what he can do about social assistance. There’s also the thorny issue of the money his mother, whom he isn’t close to, is receiving from government that is supposed to support Trevor.
He’s dressed in a collared black and white striped shirt, jeans and white runners. He’s lean, with short hair and has a thin moustache. He’s given his white “Native Pride” ball cap to Gina to wear.
His former girlfriend is in a black hoodie, leggings and high-cut runners. Her face is hidden behind a mess of peroxide blonde hair.
They appear before the judge, who hears the Crown’s request for the extension. The judge grants the extension but not before she hears from Kylie, who appears lost.
“Agree,” she says quietly. “I’m fine with everything.”
As they leave court, Hawkins, Bessie and Amber go into action like an emergency response team. They hug Kylie, tell her things are going to be alright and ensure she has their cellphone numbers.
Outside court, Trevor is ecstatic.
“I love it—and I’m happy she agreed with it,” he says, with Phoenix at his side.
The court appearance took longer than anticipated. It’s 2:30 when Hawkins catches a bus back to Ray-Cam. She doesn’t bother to cross the street to the meeting after spotting some of the participants on the sidewalk.
Inside the community centre, she hears from Scott Clark of ALIVE, or Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, who was at the meeting.
He tells Hawkins there are plans for a large gathering July 28 at Ray-Cam, where the goal is to bring women’s groups together to discuss building safer neighbourhoods for women and children.
There’s also talk of requesting a meeting with city manager Penny Ballem to again stress the need for a network of services for children and families as the city considers a new community plan for the Downtown Eastside.
Hawkins agrees to get working on helping organize the meeting in July. As she gets up from the table, a young woman who stays with Hawkins on occasion approaches her. She’s in tears about not having any money or being able to find work. Hawkins gives her a hug.
“I’m going to make some calls and see if I can get you a job at one of the Chevrons [gas stations],” she says of her former employer.
But that will have to wait. One of the community centre’s board of directors reminds Hawkins of a Block Watch meeting beginning in 15 minutes.
“I’ll be there,” she says. “I just have to check on my kids at daycare.”
NATIONAL ABORIGINAL DAY
It’s been a few weeks since Lecoy left Hawkins and the other moms at the Raymur projects.
On this morning, she’s at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings to celebrate National Aboriginal Day.
She’s in a bright red T-shirt, holding a drum and standing before a large crowd in the centre’s gymnasium.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and NDP MLA Jenny Kwan are there.
Lecoy doesn’t have a band with her, so no spoken word today. Before she begins, she gets a round of applause when the host informs the crowd that Lecoy is 29 months sober.
She breaks into a set of traditional aboriginal songs and, in between, tells of her struggles. A group of students from Simon Fraser elementary are seated cross-legged in the front row.
“I’m singing in memory of all the youth and the women who are struggling with drugs and addictions and alcoholism. It’s really important that we empower our youth today and our children today. We see all these little babies around here. They are the future of tomorrow.”
Lecoy stays on that message later in the morning as she joins several hundred aboriginal people in an annual march to Trout Lake. Word of government cuts to aboriginal youth programs makes the march more poignant.
“I’m not too happy about it,” she says, marching up Commercial Drive. “These programs help to keep youth off the street and help them to lead a good life. And they bring other people with their aboriginal teachings to the city, which is important. I don’t get it. How can the government talk about apologizing for the residential school mess and then cut these programs?”
It’s the afternoon of Friday, July 13.
The big day has come.
Melanie Lecoy, mother of five children, victim of sexual and physical abuse, recovering alcoholic, foster kid and former Raymur mom is about to graduate from Native Education College.
She’s running late and misses the opening procession of more than 120 graduates filing into a hall at the Italian Cultural Centre on Grandview Highway.
Lecoy quickly gets into her royal blue gown and dons her cap. She’s in a dress and heels. Her hair is done, make-up on.
Hawkins shows up briefly but again she is double-booked and committed to a community meeting and a day camp for children. She gives Lecoy a hug and a kiss.
“Look at you, you are so beautiful,” she says.
Lecoy joins her classmates near the front of the hall and, by coincidence, gets to listen to a keynote speech from her uncle, B.C.’s Lt. Gov. Steven Point.
“When one aboriginal person graduates and achieves something great, everybody has achieved,” he says in a rising voice. “We can turn around the perception that the Canadian people—or anybody—has of minorities simply by changing the way we perceive ourselves. We can achieve greatness.”
Soon, the parade of graduates begins. Lecoy’s class is seventh on the list. She waits at the side of the stage and when her name is called, there is applause.
Her daughter Caprice runs up front with her smartphone to snap photographs. Lecoy steps onto the stage and bows to have a traditional red scarf draped around her neck.
Then she stands, beaming with her classmates for the cameras.
“Once again,” the host of the ceremony says over the PA system, “the family and community counselling graduating class of 2012.”
She leaves the stage to hugs, handshakes and more photographs before taking a moment to reflect on what the day means to her. Her thoughts come quickly.
“I already had it in me, I just had to dig deep and apply myself. So, here I am.”