We Seek to Provide Hope through Direct Service and the Promotion of Well Being

Many years ago early in my career at Alpha House I was offered the task of facilitating a value clarification exercise with staff. For a day we processed together to produce a document of our beliefs statements and working values. At the time we were faced with the possibility of government funding cuts as Calgary entered an energy/oil/gas industry bust and province wide austerity measures. The possibility of losing our shelter was on the table. Our effort to express our values and beliefs given these real stressors helped us to stay focused on what was important to our ongoing work…the client comes first.

Together we generated a summary belief statement for our client centered work…’we provide hope through direct service and the promotion of well-being‘.

It was a great message for ourselves to own and to share with the community. We made it clear to all, funders included that for Alpha House the client was our number one concern and so should it also be theirs. We expressed strongly that our programs at the time shelter and detox were essential to meeting the needs of those marginalized by addiction, mental health, and chronic homelessness. We didn’t underestimate then (nor do we now) of how the articulation of our values and beliefs propelled us to move forward.

From that experience of staff solidarity, I came to know that the heart of Alpha House is its shelter; it is the heart of all our programs as we strive to meet our mandate of providing safe and caring environments for men and women with alcohol and other drug dependencies, across a continuum of care. I don’t say this to disparage our detox, outreach and housing programs. Far from it, it is just that there no mistake that for most of us as new hires, we are trained and work first in the shelter. Shelter is where our staff find their inspiration and where our agencies collective imagination takes flight. The shelter is where staff bear witness. It is where we encourage hope and well-being. It is where action is taken to reduce harm and to embrace the possibility of client defined and driven recovery.

It can also be a place of heartbreak and despair that further calls us to action.

For some staff, the work is overwhelming. It can be difficult to adjust to a value system that is non-judgmental and client focused; to let go of our personal agendas isn’t easy.  To unlearn what even our schooling sometimes gets wrong. Many well meaning folks who have seen clients as people to be saved have been burned out by the work involved to strive for such a lofty and impossible goal. It is the walk not the talk that matters and also it is the walk not the talk that trips us up. It isn’t an easy walk with the client who is in almost constant crisis and in the end must save herself. Some staff have hung in there and still work on this understanding while others have moved on early to find a better fit for themselves elsewhere.

It is in our shelter where staff learn that there is no turning away from the impact of historic and real time trauma and the symptomatic expression through addiction and mental health. It is in the shelter the impact of intergenerational trauma, poverty, homelessness, systemic racism, gender and sexual orientation discrimination, sexism and grief are witnessed. It is in the shelter that the hearts of our staff are broken and where as staff we also find tremendous healing. It is where our often broken clients can find if even momentarily some sense of healing in their lives. The secret to our own healing as staff is the challenge to create space for hope. It may require as staff to show our own vulnerability in order to mirror to our clients our belief in their worthiness. In doing so we reinforce our own and their worthiness as a person and find healing together.

We model for the client a different way to be in the world through our consistency and awareness of power and how it is held between us. It is in the shelter that the seeds of worthiness are planted, maybe for the first time; where a client is seen as more than their addiction and bit by bit can let go of the shame that shuts her down. Working in the shelter means letting go of power and responding pragmatically to what caring really means. To actually seeing the client and to be willing to be seen by them. This work, what can only be defined as compassion has infiltrated throughout our history and into the marrow of all our programs here in Calgary and in Lethbridge. It has enhanced our education, diverse skills and tool kits and has created generous and seasoned workers who daily show up to build capacity and resilience with our clients; always placing them first.

In closing…this is my last offering for this log series as I mark 25 years at Alpha House. It comes as we prepare in this year of pandemic for staff service recognition and appreciation week in early December. I am so proud of all our staff across our programs who truly strive to leave no client behind.


David Burke