FIVE YEARS AGO, Reverend Al Tysick started the Dandelion Society to serve Victoria’s homeless citizens, particularly those who have difficulty fitting into existing programs, usually because of their addictions or mental health issues.
Besides the early morning rounds, offering coffee, donuts and hugs, Al and his crew help get people to the hospital if sick, or to rehab if ready. They’ll take them somewhere to have a shower, or just to have coffee and a chat. They’ll round up second-hand furniture for someone when they do get housing, or make sure someone sleeping outside has a dry sleeping bag.
The Dandelion Society does their work without a dime of government funding. “We believe if we are doing good work, we’ll be supported by community citizens.” And they are. “There are many, many people who give us 20 bucks,” says Al, “and we love that.”
One benefit of relying on community members and not government money, says Al, is “that we are not at all hampered in what we say.” This has been critical in the past year during which Reverend Al and the Dandelion team have been involved with the folks who camped at the tent city on the Provincial Law Courts grounds, advocating for housing and services for the residents and others.
“I know it was hard on the neighbouring residents,” says Reverend Al, “but at the end of the day, we have many more homeless people housed.”
In recent years, through the generosity of the community, the Society has been able to hire three front-line workers to assist Al in the Dandelion’s ministry.
His most recent hire is Courtney Wendland, who volunteered with the Dandelion for two years previous. Like Al, from 4am-7am, Courtney does the rounds which allows the team to check in on people who live on the streets. She spends another few hours meeting with individuals to help them with whatever it is they need most—whether filling out forms for government assistance or housing, visiting someone in hospital, or just taking them to breakfast for a good chat. “Some of them are so alone and so interesting,” she says.
Courtney has an interesting story herself, one that shows the importance of someone lending a helping hand at the right moment.
Born in Victoria, Courtney grew up in a dysfunctional family. “I remember as young as age 7 wishing my parents would separate because they were constantly arguing.” Drugs and alcohol were also present. She’s known social workers from Family Services since she was 7 or younger.
Her parents did split up, and for a while she lived with her dad. But when she was 11, he disappeared. She hasn’t talked to him since.
Courtney tried living with her mother and siblings again, but it just didn’t work out. She describes it as “a really toxic environment,” but is still grateful to her mom who often held down two jobs to keep the rent paid.
By age 13 she was working (in a friend’s mom’s shop) and couch surfing with friends. When she was 16 and working in a restaurant, a couple she’d come to know from serving them every Sunday learned her story one evening. They came back the next day, offering to take her in and help her get into proper youth housing and programs. Friends of theirs tutored her in math and English. These people inspired her, she says, to help others when she could.
While she continued her studies and full-time work, she was accepted into Cool Aid’s youth housing. She was excited and happy. But she was soon dealt another blow. Her brother Justin was fatally stabbed on Douglas Street. Justin had been the only member of her family she was close to at the time. “He was the first person I would call if anything was happening. My heart broke. I felt so alone.”
She credits the fellow residents and workers in Cool Aid’s youth program (and others) for helping her get through this terrible time. The monthly dinners, the budgeting tutoring, the friendships with others who had their own challenging lives, “that program built me back up,” she says.
She also worked full-time in a women’s clothing shop downtown, and says her fellow workers—“brilliant, funny, strong women, really took me in and mentored me.”
“In my life, I’ve been so lucky to have met people who have helped,” says Courtney. “I decided to go back to school to learn how to help people—and to do all the things that Justin was going to do, but never would now.”
While working evenings and weekends, Courtney completed high school. She is now pursuing a degree in Social Work.
Two years ago, despite her full-time work and full-time studies, she started volunteering at the Dandelion Society. Reverend Al was impressed by her dedication and, when able, offered her a paid position. Dandelion’s early shift means she can work full-time and attend school.
“I love working for Dandelion. It’s fun,” says the bright-eyed 23-year-old. As the only woman on the team, she often meets with women on the street, but she has a friendly ear for everyone. She mentions an older man who she often saw but who seemed reticent about talking. Over the weeks, she let him know if he ever wanted to talk, she’d be happy to have coffee. Eventually he took her up on the offer and they’ve been meeting regularly. “He is an incredibly interesting person,” says Courtney. After keeping to himself for years following a personal tragedy, he has thanked her for reminding him that he actually enjoys talking with people.
“I work hard on building meaningful relationships with the people on the streets,” says Courtney. As Reverend Al says, “The Dandelion’s role is all about presence and connection.”
Donations to help Dandelion carry out its ministry are welcome online or by phone.
The Dandelion Society
778-440-1471 • www.hopeliveshere.ca
PO Box 8648, 708 Yates Street, Victoria BC, V8W 3S2