Until HE Showed Up Part III

Until HE Showed Up Part III

(From Brice’s Point Of View)
Brice and Kevin

By Grant Bentley

If any person, place, event, happening, thing, sport, nice person, or nasty person, seem familiar, it is purely coincidental.

Life is funny. Well I don’t know if funny is the right word. But if you sit back, analyze where you’ve been, the decisions you’ve made, where they took you, and were given the chance to do it all again, would you change any of them?

Taken one at a time, I know I would, now that I know where each one was going to take me. I would never have trusted James and told him I was gay and I would never have become friends with Tyler when I first came to the city.

However, when I look at where I am today, what I have, and what I have accomplished, I realize that, however horrendously some of my past decisions ended up, they were the stepping stones that got me here. If I had made one decision differently, where would I be right now? Would I have the life I now have? No. So, taken as a whole, would I want to go back and change anything? No.

I have two of the most amazing friends, no, big brothers, Chad and Josh. They came to my rescue at a time when I was at the lowest point imaginable. I have unconditional love, acceptance, and support, as well as self-respect, and dignity. None of which I feel I am deserving of in some ways and all of which I feel I am deserving of in other ways. If I look at the things I have allowed to happen to me, I am not deserving. If I look at where I am now and compared to where I’ve been, I am deserving. I know that sounds contradictory. If you look at the fact that I allowed myself to become a heroin addicted male prostitute, I am not deserving. If you look at the fact that I have been drug free and have had the most amazing career for the last six years, I am deserving. Of course neither of those things would have happened to me without help…bad help and good help.

No matter where you are in life at this particular moment, no matter how hopeless you feel, don’t ever give up. If you have a dream, don’t ever let it go. Hang on to it; keep it alive. That dream may be what gives you the strength to reach out, to fight, and make your life what you want it to be.

I made it off the street for three reasons. One, I wanted to get off the street. Two, I was willing to ask for help. Three, I was willing to take ownership and fight for my life. Feeling sorry for myself, and blaming others for my predicament, didn’t get me anywhere. I had to say to myself, “This is where I am…This is where I want to be…Only I can make it happen.” I needed help, yes, and I sought and accepted that help, but ultimately it was up to me to turn my life around.

That was six years ago. I have not forgotten that day in Chad’s office when he and Josh first reached out to help me. That’s why, five years ago I went to Chad and Josh and suggested The Step Up program. I wanted to be that someone other street kids could reach out to. If I couldn’t be there personally, I wanted to supply that someone or those some ones. I had been toying with the idea of setting up a program to help kids get off the street since I was released from the rehab centre. I had all sorts of ideas running around in my head. It wasn’t until we started writing them down, that things began to take shape.

I quickly found out that having an idea, no matter how well thought out it is, and putting it into practise are two very different things. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be, how much government red tape would be in the way. One of the first things we needed to have in place was a Board of Directors. Because we were working to qualify as a charitable agency, the board needed to be made up of volunteers. We placed an ad in the local paper explaining who we were and what our purpose would be. Well, if you have never done something like that before and are planning to, be warned. During our interviews, we heard about aliens invading the minds of children as the first step to conquering the world, about God’s wrath upon our nation for our acceptance of faggots and that the street kids were simply part of His plan to destroy North American society, about the communist plot to destabilize our youth and take over the country, and you name it.

We did find four people who seemed to be outstanding. Jeff Scott was a lawyer and many of his cases involved defending street kids, Marie Carlson was a registered nurse in the Children’s Hospital, Randy Smyth was a counsellor in one of the high schools, and Jesse Symchuck was a police officer who had worked the downtown beat for several years.

We needed one more person when this bright light appeared on our doorstep. He was a teacher/counsellor who worked for Alberta social services in a group home in the city. He taught remedial English and did as much as he could to counsel the kids in the limited time he had them there. His name was Kevin Snow. He was twenty four, about six feet tall, black hair, brown eyes, a great smile, and he was sane. 

Kevin was Chad’s and my last interview for the day. When I noticed the time and realised we had almost missed dinner, I suggested Kevin come over for one of Josh’s great BBQ’s. Did I mention he had a great smile? 

Chad looked at me, grinned and echoed my invitation. Kevin followed us to the house. Once in the house, I offered him a drink, non-alcoholic of course. He decided on a Coke and I decided on Pepsi. 

Josh was already home and sitting back resting on the deck. As we walked out, Kevin’s reaction to the backyard and pool was not unlike mine the first time I saw it.

“Oh my God! This is amazing!” he exclaimed.

Josh laughed saying, “I think we’ve heard that reaction before.”

“I’m sure you have,” Kevin said as he walked to the edge of the deck to take it all in.

Chad appeared on the deck just about then. “You like the yard?” he asked Kevin.

“What’s not to like?” Kevin asked grinning.

At that point, I remembered my manners and introduced Kevin and Josh and explained that Kevin would be part of The Step Up team. The four of us sat around for about half an hour or so chatting about the program until Josh decided it was time to fire up the BBQ. As he got up from his chair, he leaned over and gave Chad a kiss and asked him to give him a hand. Obviously none of us had mentioned to Kevin that we were gay so I quickly glanced over at him. He didn’t look the slightest bit phased by the kiss.

“Chad and Josh are a couple I take it,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, I hope that doesn’t bother you,” I responded.

“Not at all,” he responded.

“That’s good,” I replied, “Not everyone is comfortable with it, I’m sorry to say.”

“I can't believe I’m telling you this,” he added after a lengthy pause, “But I’m what you might call a serious closet case.”

“Seriously?” I questioned, “You’re gay?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I’m not sure why, but you’re the first person I've admitted it to besides myself.”

“Really?” I queried.

“Yeah, really,” he replied.

“Thank you,” I said smiling, “I’m honoured.”

“Considering we just met an hour ago, this may sound really weird,” he said with a shy smile, “But you’re the first person I felt I wanted to tell.”

“Wow,” I responded grinning, “I’m not sure what to say. Well I have to admit I guess I was kinda hoping…you know….maybe.”

“Oh really?” he asked with a chuckle, “Is that why you invited me over?”

“No, no, not really,” I replied, a little embarrassed, “It was to…uh…introduce you to the program…and…uh…okay…I admit it…yeah it was.”

“Good,” he said with a little smile, “Cause I was kinda hoping…you know…too…maybe…I don’t know.”

“So, maybe we have a little spark here,” I responded smiling, “So want to go out sometime then?”

“Are you asking me out on a date?” he asked with a little grin this time.

“Yes I am,” I responded, “Would you like to go on a date with me?”

“Yes,” he replied grinning.

Just then Josh and Chad came out onto the deck. Josh had four huge steaks and Chad had a bowl with stuffed potatoes in one hand and a large salad in the other.

Chad looked at the two of us for a second and broke out into a grin, which didn’t go unnoticed by Kevin or Josh. Kevin just kinda smiled at me and I smiled back.

“Can we do anything to help?” I asked.

“Yeah, you want to grab the cutlery and stuff on the table,” Chad asked.

“No problem,” I said and Kevin and I got up and headed into the kitchen.

“They know don’t they?” Kevin asked me as soon as we got in the door.

“Oh, yeah, they don’t miss much,” I replied, “You okay with that?”

“You know what?” he said, “Yeah I am. There’s just something about you guys that makes me feel safe.”

“Thanks,” I said, “And as far as Chad and Josh, you will never find two better guys anywhere, ever.”

“You guys are really close,” he said, “It’s like I can feel the love between you.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “You have no idea what those two have done for me. They saved my life…literally. I’ll tell you all about it one of these days. My life hasn’t always been this good.”

“That’s why you’re starting The Step Up and why it’s so important to you isn’t it?” he stated more than asked.

“I can see I’m going to have a hard time keeping secrets from you,” I said with a grin.

He just grinned back and asked, “All this have to go out?”

“Yeah,” I replied still grinning.

We got everything out to the deck just as Josh was putting the steaks on. “How do you like your steak?” he asked Kevin.

“Medium-rare please, a little on the rare side,” Kevin replied getting a laugh from both Chad and Josh.

“What?” he asked looking puzzled.

“That’s how I like my steak,” I said laughing.

Kevin just blushed, then grinned and said, “Oh.”

We chatted about what Kevin was doing at the group home. It was obvious he was dedicated to his kids and cared deeply about them and his work. We talked a little about the photo-shoot I was working on. I was doing a fashion shoot for one of the biggest clothing designers in the country. It was a major accomplishment just to land a contract with him and, if all went well, it could be worth millions in new contracts for Chad and Josh. We had been working on it for two weeks now and the designer was thrilled with what he had seen so far, so it was looking good.

“I can’t imagine how exciting it would be to do something like that,” Kevin said, “I couldn’t possibly do it. I’m just not creative enough.”

“You may not have and eye for the camera,” I said, “But what you do for those kids is changing lives and don’t even try to tell me that doesn’t require creativity.”

“What you do has far more value than anything we do,” Chad said, “What we do has monetary value. What you do has human value.”

“Not if what I’ve heard about your charity work is true,” Kevin responded.

“Thank you.” Josh responded, “I guess we’re all doing what we can. But don’t underestimate your value Kevin. Not many can do what you’re doing with those kids. It takes someone really special to be able to work with high risk kids and get through to them.”

“I guess,” he replied blushing, “Thanks.”

“Steaks are ready,” Josh announced, “Let’s eat.”

Once we each had what we wanted, we sat around the table on the deck. We talked about the ideas we had for the program for a while before our conversation wandered into more personal discussions. Kevin talked about growing up in the city and the trials of high school, particularly if you didn’t fit in and weren’t one of the in-group. We even got into how, quite often, your high school years can shape your feeling of self worth and how that can follow you through your adult life. One of the things he mentioned was how junior high and high school had changed him from the outgoing kid he had been in elementary school to the quiet, reserved person he was now.

Then, although I wasn’t planning to do it this soon, we got into the story my life. I didn’t leave a lot out and a couple of times, I noticed Kevin wipe away a tear as I was talking.

When I was finished, he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Brice, you are a stronger person that me. I think I would have killed myself within the first month if that had happened to me. The fact that you survived that ordeal, held onto your dream, reached out for help, and pulled yourself out of that life and into this life astounds me. You should be so proud.”

I had done well up to that point, but when he said, “You should be so proud,” I kinda lost it and the tears started to flow. This time it wasn’t Josh or Chad who came to the rescue and held me. It was Kevin.

Kevin and I did go on that date and many more after that. It wasn’t long before we were always together except when we were at work. Much of our time was spent working on The Step Up. In fact The Step Up became ‘our’ project. With the help of Chad and Josh and our other volunteer board members, Jeff, Marie, Randy, and Jesse, we put countless hours into coming up with a mission statement, philosophy, statement of operating principles, budget, management list, and more.

Kevin and I researched the Internet every night for weeks. We talked about my experience and about the kids that Kevin worked with. I needed help and sought out that help. The kids Kevin worked with and who made the most progress were ones that sought him out and asked for help. From that, we came up with our first simple but important premise; ‘They come to us.’ That is, the kids would take ownership. They would not be sought out, called in, lectured, judged, or made to feel they needed help. Instead, they would decide they wanted to get off the street. They would decide they needed help. They would come to the office. And, the office would purposely not be right downtown. It would take them off their own turf, so to speak, and make it necessary for them to make an effort.

Second premise was to establish and maintain a principle of integrity and dignity.  These kids must be accepted as they are without judgement. We must see the person first and the behaviour as just one aspect of the life of the person. These kids must be respected, valued, consulted, included and enjoyed. Like any other kid, they are responsive, active learners, and capable of setting and achieving goals. We would be facilitators only. We would give them the tools to think about their own situation so they would be able to define themselves, grow, and make choices to take themselves forward.

After months of filling out forms, getting permits, and dealing with perspective landlords and community groups, who were sure we were going to be bringing the entire street population in to campout on their front lawns, we finally had The Step Up legal, housed, and ready to go. Well sort of. Of course that was the ‘easy’ part. We had a board of directors, Chad, Josh, Jeff, Marie, Randy, Jesse, Kevin and myself. Now we needed counsellors, and volunteers to run the program. And, we needed to get the word out on the street.

It wasn’t easy, but within a month, we had four counsellors and fifteen trained volunteers and our doors were open. Now to assume there would be a line-up outside as soon as the doors were open would have been a touch naïve. Our clientele were kids who for the most part had been screwed over by adults. Most of them, in no way shape or form, had any respect for, or trust in, adults. How then do you get them to come in?

Pay them. Twenty dollars a visit, four visits a month. To earn that twenty dollars all they had to do was visit with a volunteer counsellor, explain why they wanted to get off the street, write down their goals, and ideas as to how they would accomplish those goals on a form, sign a contract stating that they would work to accomplish their goals, shake on it with the volunteer counsellor, and leave. Sceptical?

Here’s the story of one of our clients. His name was Jacob Moses Abraham Jakobowsky (Jake to his friends). Yes, his name is for real. His father was a minister in one of the larger, right-leaning, orthodox churches in the city. Jake was gay, and when his parents found out, he had been sent to a camp for sexual reorientation, which included a three-hour exorcism the day he arrived. It took him about two days to find there was an air vent in one of the washrooms connected to the outside with only four screws. He was able to sneak a spoon from the dinner table. By 2:00 A.M. that night, he was on the street. That was two years before he came to us. He was fourteen.         

This is his story in his own words.

It was about a year ago that I first walked in The Step Up’s door. It had been rainy for a week or more and I was cold, tired, hungry and absolutely miserable. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep going. One of my friends already went to The Step Up. Since I figured I had nothing to lose, I went along with him. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to be accepted into the program and I can’t say I took it particularly seriously at first..

All I had to do was write out some goals, say something about how I might achieve them, sign a contract that said I would try to achieve them, have a little chat with a volunteer counsellor, shake her hand, and I was twenty dollars richer. Sweet.

I did want to get off the street though. I did want a better life. But I wasn’t ready to take full ownership and work for it. I told myself the reason for coming back every week was the money. But somewhere in there, things began to change. Time after time I wrote goal after goal. After writing the goals over and over, I eventually surprised myself, and actually began to believe I could achieve them.

I realize now they probably knew that would happen. They got me there and kept me coming back. Once they did that, the rest would come together. It worked for me, and it has worked for many others who have turned to The Step Up.

Where would I be right now if I had not had the opportunity given to me by The Step Up? I have no idea. Not where I am right now. In a classroom speaking to at-risk junior high kids about hope, about reaching out, about life on the street, what happens to the lucky ones, and what happens to the not so lucky ones. That is, when I’m not in class myself, finishing high school and preparing to go into psychology and youth counselling at our local college.

The Step Up acts as a guide for street kids who, although we may reach out for help, would never admit we're lost. They lead us slowly towards our goals and when we get there, it’s a success that we can claim as our own. We wanted it. We worked for it. We earned it.

Jake J.

Once Jake made the final commitment, we helped him get government assistance and got him registered in a high school upgrading program at Chinook College. We also helped him find room and board with an older couple close to the college. It was successes like Jake’s that made all the time and effort required keeping The Step Up going worthwhile. During the first year, we hired a full-time coordinator. Chad, Josh, Kevin and I continued on as board members, but we removed ourselves from the day-to-day running of the program. Not surprisingly, it continued to have the same success without us as it did with us. It was everything we hoped it would be.

Speaking of what we hoped it would be, next Saturday is Kevin and my fifth anniversary together. It’s not often that we do something extravagant. Usually if we do, we always manage to feel guilty. We always think there must be something more useful we could be doing with our money. But this time, we decided that, after all the time and effort we had put into our jobs and The Step Up, we deserved to be extravagant this once. We were packed and ready to go for almost a week before Chad finally drove us to the airport.

We are flying to Ibiza, Spain to celebrate. We are going to be there for two weeks. Ibiza has it all, luxury hotels, villas, condos, magnificent white beaches, amazing historical sites and buildings, and some of the hottest nightclubs in the world. It’s going to be the trip of a lifetime. We should be on the dance floor with around 4,000 other people in Amnesia, one of the top dance clubs in the world, dancing to Armin van Buuren, one of the top DJs in the world, in about ten hours.

About three hours into the flight, I feel Kevin’s head come to rest on my shoulder as he falls asleep, and I can’t help but smile as I close my eyes and lean my head against his. I have the most amazing partner. He loves me with all his heart in spite of where I’ve been and he knows exactly where I’ve been. I have the most amazing friends/brothers in Josh and Chad. I have the most amazing job. And, I have been given the desire, the means and the support to reach out to other kids that society has turned their back on. When your life is perfect, I think the price to get there was worth it, and today, my life is perfect.

What more could a street kid ask for?


Note: The idea for The Step Up is based on The Doorway in Calgary whose mission statement is “To assist young people exiting the street culture in becoming self-sufficient and engaged members of society while also engaging members of the community as partners in this transition.”  

A very special thanks to Colin for posting this story for me.