“I’m sure that all cultures around the world know the best place … and the safest place that you’ve ever been is at the table with your family.”
Those are the words of William Jack, a homeless outreach worker at the United Way funded breakfast club at Hiiye’yu Lelum Society (House of Friendship) in Duncan. He is also known by two other names.
“My grandmother gave me the name of Tse’hwu’uts’stun,” he says. “Roughly translated into English, it means I’m the last light you see before darkness sets upon you. And the other name from my grandfather’s side is Sleeq’thun, and it means the many hands that help.”
Both extremely relevant to the work he does at the breakfast club alongside several others.
Offering alternating cold and warm breakfasts Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., the program also offers laundry services and, outside of pandemic times, access to showers for homeless Indigenous people. But beyond that, William seeks to provide friendship, guidance and a safe place for people to get ready to once again take on the world.
“I’ve been told by my grandparents that I need to share my wisdom and help each and every one person that comes through our territory,” he explains. “Because I’ve earned my name, it is my responsibility to help them, to enlighten them to a place where you can just be free.”
Integral to that is providing a warm, safe place to sit and get a meal.
As the program’s cook, Mary Seymour is an important part of creating that situation from which learning and change can come.
“Her skills go beyond just the cooking,” says William. “Part of our culture teaches that you put your good feelings in the food, and that’s what Mary does.”
Due to the pandemic, Mary can’t have much contact with the people she’s feeding to keep her safe. But that disconnection is difficult for her. She worries especially for the younger folks.
“I worry when I don’t see them enough, when they don’t get here, some of them. I wonder if they are OK,” she says.
“I think 25 per cent of our clients … would be under 24 years of age, who have aged out of foster care or had some bad luck,” says William.
He and Mary mention the need for a transitional house for youth, and the general need for greater support, while they continue to provide what help they can through the breakfast club.
“It’s heartbreaking, but the best thing we can do, here, is make sure that they leave with some warm clothing, some food and encouraging words to continue on.”
And it does help.
When asked about success stories, William’s smile goes wide.
He recalls a couple who, years ago, attended the breakfast club. The couple’s successful business had gone under, and their possessions taken away, even their vehicles, except for a beater car that a friend gave them.
“They came here and they told me their story … [I told them] ‘Breath, breath. You are safe here. Your skills are still there – no one has taken your skills away. It’s just that you had some bad luck. You can get up back on your own two feet and do it again.’”
“I became their brother, and I sat with them and I explained to them … they have each other and they have me to help and guide them.”
After six months attending the breakfast club, the couple stopped coming by. Months after that, they returned having started building their business back up.
“They said, ‘We couldn’t t have done it without your breakfast club, we couldn’t have done it without your guidance, we appreciate your culture and your teachings,’” says William.
When they asked what they could do to help, William said to be ready to help someone who is in that same difficult position that they were, and share the generosity that was given to them.
United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island supports and funds Hiiye’yu Lelum’s breakfast club, along with the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.
Through people like William and Mary, and the teachings from their culture, the program is making a difference.