A police siren echoes between the buildings.
Ashley looks around nervously as she lets the backpack slide down her arm and quickly sits down on the busy sidewalk. She places her cap on the ground and pulls the hoodie over her long stringy hair. The chill from the grimy bricks races along her spine and she tucks shivering hands inside her sleeves.
She stares at the herd of boots and sneakers that scurry past her and gingerly avoids contact with the awkward glances of the passers-by. She wonders why they don’t seem to care. Is it because she’s dirty? Is it because she’s a looser? Is she not good enough? What do they know about her life on the streets? She just needs some help, a bit of money, that’s all. Surely they could spare her a few of their coins?
Tiny pellets of rain begin to dance on the ground beside her. Matching tears well up in Ashley’s eyes and trickle down pale cheeks. She clutches her stomach to ease the spasms of nagging hunger pains. She longs for someone to drop her some cash and to do it soon. She needs to find food and buy more drugs. She needs to escape. She needs to survive.
A pair of scruffy runners appears in front of her and stops. Ashley eyes the footwear suspiciously. She’s seen them before. She glances up at a young woman’s face decorated with a silver nose stud and a row of piercings along one earlobe. The hood and shoulders of her anorak are drenched; the jeans are clean but well-worn.
“Hey, remember me. I’m Julie from the Youth Empowerment Society.”
Ashley glares at her.
“Just wondered h’ya doing?”
“Go away,” Ashley growls and wipes her nose on her sleeve.
“I know of a place not far from here where you can get a free meal. I only stopped to ask if you wanted to join me.”
Ashley looks at her empty cap, now soaked on the sidewalk in front of her. She can’t trust anyone; everyone’s a predator. They all want a piece of her. She doesn’t know what to do.
“Okay,” she says at last and cautiously packs up to leave.
Julie is an outreach worker for the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society (Y.E.S.). This is her third contact with Ashley, a runaway from a middle-class home whose life on the streets has been a living nightmare of physical and sexual abuse.
Julie takes Ashley to a safe place in the city’s downtown core where Ashley meets others just like her. She learns that she is always welcome to return and get a break from the streets, have a good meal and clean her clothes.
Gradually Ashley works up enough courage to talk to one of the counsellors at the centre. Eventually she joins some of the programs offered by Y.E.S. She tells them about her family and they immediately take steps to notify her parents of where she is. Someday she’ll meet them; someday she may even reconcile with them. But for now, she’s working on healing herself and that is enough.
“Tell me about the bowl you painted,” Ashley’s counsellor asks.
“The black dots in the interior of the bowl represent all of us who are trapped. The black dots on the outside of the bowl are people who have gotten out. I will become one of them someday.”
These are profound words from a young woman who’d been living on the streets since she was 15.
“What does the word hope mean to you?”
“Something to hang onto. Something to look forward to.”
Y.E.S. has given Ashley hope of a better future. Y.E.S. inspires hope in others like her and their families. Y.E.S. supports the vulnerable youth that are trapped and helps them find their way out of the bowl.
The names and characters portrayed in the story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons or incidents was intended or should be inferred.
The orange soup bowl with the black dots was created by one of the youth engaged in a Victoria Youth Empowerment Society program. The description of what the dots signify and what hope means to this individual are actual quotes that appeared beside the bowl at one of Y.E.S.’ annual Souper Bowls of Hope fundraising events.
I wish to thank the staff at the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society for their support and for sharing their expertise with me. Please follow the links below to learn more about this extraordinary organization.
Victoria Youth Empowerment Society: http://www.vyes.ca/
Souper Bowls of Hope: http://souperbowls.com/