For these young people, this house in Thunder Bay, Ont., is a safe haven — but they almost lost it | CBC News

The house at the corner of Heron and McKenzie Street in Thunder Bay, Ont., is a place where young people like Brooke Walker and Miya Yerxa can eat, hang out and be themselves.

But the safe haven for children in the neighbourhood nearly shut its doors this spring due to funding issues.

Evergreen a United Neighbourhood is a grassroots organization that supports children and families in the Simpson-Ogden community. It primarily functions as a drop-in centre, but recently shifted its focus to fighting food insecurity. The organization has been running for over 15 years and next month marks 10 years since it’s operated from the house.

Brooke, 14, and Miya, 15, come to the space to eat, chat and relax in the cozy room upstairs, which has bean bag chairs, string lights and a projector to watch movies. 

“You don’t feel judged when you’re around people [here],” said Brooke. “If [kids are] having trouble at home, they can just come here and not have to worry about anything.”

“[It is] a place to get away from school and stuff and just to hang out,” added Miya.

It’s just a really good place. We’re all like family here.– Stan Thompson, 18, who’s used Evergreen a United Neighbourhood’s services

A lot of children haven’t had breakfast or lunch before coming to the house, so “they’re really, really hungry,” said Linda Bruins, Evergreen’s executive director.

The neighbourhood grandmothers make sandwiches every week. Many older people who came to Evergreen as children return to help out. During the school year, volunteers may prepare up to 50 hot meals a day. 

This spring, the organization appealed to city council for emergency funding so it could stay open. It has no core funding, which means it relies entirely on grants, donations and fundraisers.

“We were desperately running short. I actually laid myself off for four months … which was extreme,” Bruins said.

Council voted to provide $10,000 to Evergreen in addition to its operating grant allocation of $30,000. The organization’s entire operating budget this year was $123,400.

“Every year it gets a little bit more challenging to do this,” said Bruins. “We’re back in the clear again, which is another sigh of relief.”

Not an easy place to grow up in

Bruins was raised in the neighbourhood and still lives there. She tries to teach children street smarts and how to stay safe.

“It’s not an easy one to grow up in, but if you do, you’ll be a survivor,” she said. “[We’ve] got the poverty, we do have an extreme addictions problem in this neighbourhood.”

Lorna Covino, one of Evergreen’s sandwich makers, has known Bruins for a long time.

Covino spoke about how Bruins made meals for seniors in the neighbourhood during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. So when Bruins asked if Covino could help out at Evergreen, she couldn’t refuse.

A smiling woman holds a bin of sandwiches.
Lorna Covino volunteers at Evergreen a United Neighbourhood and makes sandwiches once a week. She says the space is an essential hub for the neighbourhood children. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

“If Linda loses this and doesn’t get the funding that she might need, it’d be a shame. It’d be a shame because this is the only place that these kids have and these people that are in need,” Covino said.

“She helps to steer the kids in the right direction.”

Evergreen receives support from the the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board, United Way and the City of Thunder Bay. Family Foods Centennial offers free food delivery and Evergreen also gets shipments from the Regional Food Distribution Association.

“The families really value getting the fresh fruit and vegetables because they’re very expensive these days,” Bruins said.

As the organization assesses its long-term sustainability, Bruins hopes to work with a university to develop a report about Evergreen’s impact that can be used to attract more funding.

“I would say we’re sustainable [in] that we’re here after 15 years, right? So hopefully [there] won’t be as many challenges, but I guess it’s what makes you stronger,” she said.

A place without judgment

Colin Moonias, who begins Grade 8 in the fall, has been coming to Evergreen for about a year. He likes playing computer games and spending time with other kids there.

“It’s very important to me and my friends. [We] hang out and eat food,” he said.

A boy plays on a computer.
Colin Moonias plays on the computer at Evergreen a United Neighbourhood. The soon-to-be Grade 8 student says he enjoys eating and spending time with friends there. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Stan Thompson, 18, started coming to Evergreen after his partner brought him there with her younger brother.

“I was a troublemaker back then and she wanted me to get out of that,” he said. “As I was growing up, I didn’t like staying at home. It was hard fending for myself, trying to get money for food and whatnot.

“But then I heard of this place and [Bruins] gave out food. So I came here, tried it out, and look, I’m still here. I love it.”

Two men measure a set of stairs outside.
Marc Blais, left, mentors Stan Thompson as the men look at replacing the stairs at Evergreen a United Neighbourhood. Thompson hopes to pursue a career in carpentry. (Derek Monias/CBC)

Thompson, who is now a father, is looking to pursue a career in carpentry. He’s learning the tricks of the trade from Marc Blais, Evergreen’s maintenance, building and security manager.

“It’s always been a thing watching my grandpa do it and whatnot and I’ve helped them build a shelf here and I’ve helped them build a shoe rack also,” Thompson said. 

Evergreen also gives references to help young people get jobs.

“It’s just a really good place,” Thompson said. “We’re all like family here.”


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