November Article in Senior Living Magazine

A Hand Up!

By Vernice Shostal

 

VHES volunteers director Steve Foley and recording secretary Jo-Anne Layton at McGivney House. Photo by: Vernice Shostal

From her home on Mayne Island, Australian-born humanitarian Patricia Fitzgerald is a key volunteer in the Victoria Human Exchange Society (VHES), a grassroots organization established in 1992 to provide support and advocacy for people working hard to solve their own problems.

The society, a totally volunteer registered charity, provides temporary, affordable, dignified housing to people who need it.

VHES exists primarily to support homeless and low-income individuals as they strive to help themselves. More than a hand out, it offers people a hand up. As Taoist founder Lao Tzu said, “Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime.” Teaching someone to become self-sufficient and able to survive without being provided for gives that person a sense of achievement and fulfillment.

Mother, grandmother, caregiver and retired teacher Patricia, now nearing her 80s, began her humanitarian journey in her youth. She completed teacher training in Melbourne in her late teens and, to please her mother, at age 19, entered a convent where she dedicated her life to service.

“I persevered for 18 years in religious life, but felt in my heart it was a good preparation for something else,” she says. “That ‘something else’ has unfolded as the years went by.”

Patricia met her husband, Tom, when they were both volunteering at a retreat for poor families in Montserrat near Melbourne. The two volunteered to mind the children, prepare meals and clean cabins while the parents rested.

“I had recently left my religious congregation and been told about this opportunity in the country to pray and discern what to do next.”

Coincidentally, Tom had left a Religious Brotherhood in Montreal, where he felt “the Brothers lived too well while surrounded by the poor folk of the city who were not sufficiently cared for by the [church],” Patricia says. Eventually, Tom went to Australia to work with a missionary group that served aboriginal people.

After approximately a year, Patricia and Tom decided they could work together as a couple since their backgrounds and ideals were similar.  They married in 1975 and left Sydney for Canada. Met by Tom’s friends in Vancouver, the couple moved to the Cranbrook-Kimberley area where they were asked to foster a First Nation child “who needed a lot of care, having been in hospital for almost his entire life and failing to thrive because of FASD [Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder].”

“He was 16 months old when we took him into our home in Kimberley,” says Patricia. “We thought as he had a collapsed lung and needed a humidifier to help him breathe, he would do better near the coast, so we followed friends who were moving to this place called Mayne Island.”
On Mayne Island, Tom built their house and worked as a house painter until he retired. He died of cancer in 2013.

While raising their child, Patricia took summer and winter courses at Camosun College and UVic, obtained a Canadian teaching certificate and, for a while, taught on Mayne Island.

In 1985, as their son, Wayne, grew older, Patricia took him to Victoria to attend larger schools. “He is First Nations, and I wanted him to meet his people and learn carvings,” says Patricia. “He is now a world famous carver and lives on Mayne Island.”

While their son attended school in Victoria, Patricia took classes at Camosun College, earned a Community Care Certificate and found work in Senior Care and private homes.

Always a caring individual, Patricia began to volunteer at the 9-10 Club, a soup kitchen under St. Andrews Cathedral and became a board member of the original Anawin House in Victoria. At the 9–10 Club, Patricia says she met homeless people who lived near an apple tree under the Johnson Street Bridge.

During the cold winter of ’91–’92, one of the homeless, Larry Baker, judged by his friends as a gentle-spirited person, died of exposure. On Valentine’s Day, 1992, Patricia participated in a barbeque and service held in Larry’s memory.

Attendees at the barbeque heard from Larry’s friends that when one becomes homeless, one loses one’s individual identity; one is labeled and segregated from the rest of the human race. Homeless people are depressed and turn to alcohol and drugs for consolation and to drown their hopelessness and helplessness.

A concerned group agreed that “People known by their gifts flourish; people known by their weaknesses languish.” This group wanted to help develop the gifts of those living on the street by giving them support as they tried to face and solve the challenges confronted them.

As a result, the VHES, formed with the isolated people under the Johnson Street Bridge, opened two “Apple Seed” Houses in Victoria. Patricia, an original board member, took on the role of Vice-Chair.

VHES houses are rented from owners who understand the need to house those who have no fixed address because of poverty, addiction, marriage break-up, unemployment, under-employment, mental illness and other related problems. These owners have kept the rents low and have even raised money for the VHES within their own circles.

“It is simply a partnership of human beings,” states VHES’s mission statement.

Still a key member of the society, Patricia does financial work for all the houses, submitting invoices and receipts to their accounting technician. She writes applications for funding and supports people by telephone and email.

“Volunteers can use our application on the website if they have gifts to share,” says Patricia, who, since 2005, has also been raising two of her grandchildren “because they were in danger of being lost in the system.”
Having provided temporary, dignified housing for over 20 years, the VHES recently opened its eighth house on Vancouver Island and now operates three houses in Victoria, two in Sidney, one on Salt Spring Island and two in Nanaimo.

“Our hope is that the spirit of the Human Exchange will spread throughout the world,” says Patricia, “and that no one has only a tree under a bridge.”

To donate to the Victoria Human Exchange Society, or to leave a legacy, visit www.humanx.org, call 250-857-3905 or 250-920-5056, or email: vhesvic@victoria.tc.ca, or grandmas@saltspring.co, or mail directly to VHES, Box 8534, Victoria, BC, V8W 3S1.

 

NOVEMBER 2013 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE

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