The Family Centre at five years

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

A first-hand account of what that means to someone in need

It’s not always easy to chart the impact of a local charitable organization, but one surefire way to assess how it has served the community is to hear from one of the community members themselves.

The Fort Frances Family Centre recently celebrated its fifth year in operation in town. Now located at, and sharing a building with, the Fort Frances Volunteer Bureau, the centre is in as strong a position as it has ever been. While the organization has seen its ups, downs, challenges and successes since it started helping those in need, a first-hand account shows just how much of a difference that kind of compassion and care can make in a life.

Graham Hunter sat down and told his story to the Times last week, reflecting on the impact the Family Centre and those who volunteer there have had for him and his partner, as well as their children.

Hunter, speaking on behalf of himself and his partner Courtney, who was not able to attend the meeting, explained that five years ago they were both experiencing homelessness and drug addictions.

“Courtney was the first one to walk in [the Family Centre] doors and she brought me along with her,” Hunter said.

“We were both homeless drug addicts on the street. We had one child already in care. Courtney just started hanging around these places like the Family Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association, the United Native Friendship Centre and bringing me along with her. I know for a fact that having a safe place and that exposure to non-judgemental people really helped her want to get sober.”

Hunter reflected that after some time spent among these places, Courtney confided in him that she did, indeed, want to get sober, which led to a trip to the local methadone clinic and an unexpected surprise for both of them.

“She went to the methadone clinic and found out she was pregnant,” he said.

“She freaked out. So did I. But she made the decision right there to change her life, and she knew there were places to go that would help her, like the Family Centre. We were both still homeless. We were on the street the full nine months of her pregnancy, every day going to the Family Centre and getting fed, getting clothes and receiving love from people who didn’t even know us.”

The love and care shown to the three of them, counting their then-unborn child, is reflected back in Hunter’s voice as he recounts those days. He takes a few moments throughout his story as the emotions become too much to speak through. But after a pause, he goes on.

“It means a lot to people who are struggling to know that people care, that there are people who really care and want to give you a safe place and feed you,” he continues.

“We really need more of that from our community members and our surrounding communities. It’s a mental health issue, it’s not just drugs and alcohol. It stems from childhood trauma and mental illness.”

Five years later, Hunter reflects that life has changed dramatically for all of them, and credits much of that positive change to the efforts of volunteers at the Family Centre and other community service and health organizations.

“We’re doing great,” he shared.

“I think it was exactly a year after we got sober was when we got our daughter out of care. We were living in Manitou by then and getting help from other places… and eventually moved to Fort Frances. It’s taken a little bit longer for her to get to where I am, because of those childhood traumas, and that’s part of the reason she’s not here to talk about these things, but she wanted people to know how important places like this are for people’s mental health and recovery. And aftercare as well.”

For Hunter’s part, he said the journey he has been on has also made him understand how important it is to give back in ways similar to those that helped him. He has recently signed on as a volunteer at the family centre, as well as begun working with his father in the Indigenous community.

“This is part of my aftercare and my healing process,” he explained.

“I’m just trying to bring my healing full circle. Service is very important to recovery. The things that you know and learned don’t really mean anything if you’re not sharing them. That education and those experiences need to be shared with other people because they need to know it’s possible. In my culture, the Anishinaabe culture, we tell each other not to be stingy with your grief, share it, that’s how you relieve yourself of it. I’m doing cultural work now as well with my father, who does cultural healing with traditional medicines.”

Hunter noted he and his father have worked with the Ontario Native Women’s Association in Thunder Bay, travelling to the city to make themselves available to those who might be struggling with many of the same issues that he himself has gone through. He’s now a part of the chain that he says is crucial in helping people get better, one that can have dire consequences if broken.

“We went to meetings every day for nine months straight,” he said.

“We need the whole chain, because when it gets broken for even an hour, especially in the cold this time of year, it’s very hard. Somebody could be feeling good and fine, then all of a sudden in the morning think, ‘I gotta go outside in the cold again,’ and it just brings you down. We need that continuous network of people so that there’s always a safe place to go, 24/7.”

Family Centre volunteer Monica Sus echoed Hunter’s comments about the necessity of ensuring people in need are connected at all times, and said it’s something she’s been hoping can be put in place here during the winter months when there is a gap between when some services end and others start.

“I agree 100 percent with what he’s saying,” Sus said.

“That’s what we see here every day, that we just don’t have enough places, enough people, enough of anything. When there is a break, that’s just not good. The Warming Centre closes at 7:30 a.m., but when they leave there, there’s nothing open. We really aren’t open until nine, although in the winter we open at 8:00 a.m.”

Sus said part of the problem is that, in the dead cold of a winter morning, those in need might leave the Warming Centre and head straight to the Family Centre. However, once the methadone clinic opens at 8:30 a.m., those who are on daily methadone don’t want to walk back through the cold, and missing a day can have disastrous consequences for them.

“You miss one day, you’re hooped,” Sus said.

“I keep telling people, ‘you can’t miss, you can’t miss’ and then they miss and we don’t see them for three days and we know nothing good has come from that. It’s just a very simple thing where everything has to connect.”

Hunter says he hopes that more people in local communities can begin to understand just how much of an issue mental health and trauma are when it comes to homelessness and addictions, and that the town desperately needs more aftercare programs available to those who are trying to get sober and clean, especially as he understands the importance of keeping the chain unbroken.

“It’s mental illness, and we need to understand that mental illness so that we can get to the root of where it comes from; and more often than not, it’s childhood trauma,” he explained.

“We need to learn how to treat those traumas, and everybody’s different too. It’s going to take a long time for a lot of people to open up and trust. Another thing is we need more aftercare programs in town here, because we have a treatment centre, but a lot of times when people come out of the treatment centres, there’s not enough going on, in terms of meetings.”

There can be no argument that the love, care and support Hunter and his partner received from those at the Family Centre played a large role in helping them both to get clean, and he stressed once more the critical importance of just caring for those who are struggling with addictions, homelessness and mental health crises.

“I just want our community to be more understanding of today’s issues, because it’s not just our town,” he said.

“This is a worldwide epidemic, and people need to realize things are not going to change until we’re all ready to help. When you’re looking down on people, you’re part of the problem. I like to tell people you should never look down on somebody unless it’s to help them up. We need more people that want to help each other up, have more love and respect for your fellow humans, because we’re all in this together. We just need more understanding.”