These stories revealed both the unstoppable courage displayed by those living with effects of poverty and the bewildering complexity of the issue. It’s not as if there are some who happen to suffer under poverty and others who are unaffected; our lives grow together in such a way that if you’re not suffering, you might be culpable. We hope this weekend encourages churches in Niagara to continue wrestling with the oppressive forces of poverty present in our neighbourhoods.
Jennifer Symonds, a participant at Westview Centre4Women, tells her own story of poverty, courage and even transformation:
This constant war that my siblings and I grew up in has left scars. In my preteens, I became anorexic. I was in and out of hospitals for years, but by the time I reached high school I'd outgrown it.
When I was 15 I went to my stepmother and asked if I could move in with her and dad. But because I wasn't 16 yet, my mother showed up at the school and pulled me out. Scaring the life out of me in the process.
At 16 I was waiting at the courthouse to get my custody changed when my mother marched over to me and told me that I was disowned. You have no idea how traumatizing that can be to an emotionally immature 16-year-old.
The next few years with my dad were relatively calm, I went to school and babysat in my free time. I even got my first job. I didn't really have any friends but I did have a couple of girls that were friendly to me. When I wanted to go to the mall or movies I'd take my youngest brother, the product of my father's second marriage. There’s a 13 year age gap between us so I do realize how pathetic it was that when I wanted to do something it was my kid brother I was doing it with.
In my early twenties, I was renting the attic of a stranger’s house, but when they kicked me out and changed the locks, I was homeless… Someone ended up calling my mom and she showed up at my job and helped me get my stuff. Unhappily I ended up moving in with her. This was a turning point for me. The independence that my dad and stepmother had tried to instill in me suddenly vanished. I now needed somebody to drive me to work. I was no longer cooking my own meals or doing my own shopping and very quickly I regressed. It didn’t help that I have huge anxiety about taking buses and getting lost so I was now a prisoner of my mother's home.
Later on my mom and stepfather separated. But because I had nowhere to go I stayed in the house with my stepfather. In fact, I still live with him, though now I co-own the house.
Throughout all this I was beginning to show the signs of depression. One day when no-one was around I tried to slit my wrists and kill myself. It didn’t work. But I found out that by cutting I could drown out everything else I was feeling. So that was the start of me cutting. It was around 8 months before anyone found out. I ended up cutting in the hallway at work and someone caught me. The police were called and I was taken to the hospital. This cost me my job and I ended up on disability.
One of the outpatient programs I was in suggested Westview Centre4Women would be a good fit. It took several tries before I lasted longer than 10 minutes at the Centre. Eventually I found someone to go with and that made all the difference. I could ignore the rest of the room and just focus on JJ who was quickly becoming a friend.
Slowly I started branching out and participating in the various activities Westview provided. But there were days and weeks that I couldn’t get myself out the door. There were a lot of days the only thing I'd do was turn my computer on and read fanfiction or do some video editing. I was just going through the motions when I could be bothered enough to try. And on the days I couldn’t be bothered, I’d try to kill myself.
Two summers ago I hit another bad case of depression. For about two months I completely shut down. I stopped eating, drinking or doing anything really. Then one day I woke up. I slowly started to rebuild myself. But because I'd lost all of my muscle mass and about 30 pounds, I had a hard time climbing up the six stairs from my room in the basement and the ground floor of my house. But I did have one thing. My father had given me a second-hand electric wheelchair earlier that year. Now originally I'd scoffed at the thought of driving a wheelchair and other than that first test drive I just parked it and ignored it. But now I needed it. If I wanted to get out of my house then I needed the wheelchair.
So I started taking the wheelchair to group or the local Tim’s for a tea and to do some writing. I started showing up at group more often and talking to people. I now have more friends than I've had my whole life.
But this was just the start. Somebody I asked to hang out took me up on the offer. She suggested that we take a aquafit class at a gym she had joined. That day was a very positive turning point for me. See I had always loved swimming but now I needed the pool to rebuild all that lost muscle. And as a bonus, my sleep patterns and mood were improving. And well I started with a three-month membership it's now over a year and I'm still going. In fact I look forward to going.
While all this was going on I was invited to church to show a video I had made. That ended up opening another door for me. I was now attending Westview every day and going to Westview Christian Fellowship on Sundays. I’m actively starting to rejoin the world.
There are other small positive changes. I’m starting to dress better. No longer am I just wearing jeans and t-shirts. I’m actually putting makeup on every once and awhile, even if it’s just lipstick as that’s all I know how to apply.
The Jennifer who first started going to Westview Centre 4 Women wouldn't have been able to do this. No, that Jennifer would run and hide from everyone and everything. But the Jennifer Symonds who stands in front of you tonight is ready to rejoin the world and tell you a very small part of my story. And yes I'm still that Jennifer who has horrible self-esteem. Who isn't the best at making friends or understanding social situations. And yes I still drive people nuts with my damn near inability to take a compliment without picking at it. But I stand here tonight grateful for the support system that has helped me grow so much in the last year. One that keeps telling me that I'm smarter than I think I am. More competent than I believe. And stronger than I know.
Jen's story was recently published in the Canadian Mennonite Magazine, check it out.