March 30, 2017
A Cree elder who has worked at Phoenix for more than 16 years, Charles Ayotte still remembers a homeless Abbotsford man who was terrified of connecting with people.
The fellow had been discharged from hospital a week earlier, minus a third of his liver. “He was very sick and very weak, living on the street,” Charles says. “He stopped at my office and said, ‘I ain’t buying none of this BS and soon as I get this health problem dealt with, I’m gone.’”
As the primary counsellor at the time, Charles shrugged. He understood the man was reacting out of fear. And, sure enough, within two weeks, he had become what Charles describes as, “my most staunch advocate.” The man recovered — both physically and in terms of his addiction — lived in transitional housing for a while, and even started running, like he had as a youth, competing in the Vancouver marathon in 4 hours 40 minutes. And Charles was there when he died of liver cancer in September 2010. “I saw him the day before he passed away. I cracked a joke and he started to laugh despite being supposedly comatose.”
Experiences like this are what keep Charles loyal to his job which is now as Transitional Housing Manager. “We’re not here as helpers,” he says. “We’re human beings having conversations with other humans. We have rules and structures and guidelines but that’s not what we focus on – we focus on the relationships.”
Improving the lives of people with addiction is the goal at Phoenix and Charles points out that it always extends outwards. When a person with addiction recovers, they become a great benefit to the family and friends and society they return to.
“We’re kind of like social guerrillas,” Charles says. “Change happens not from the brilliant- minded leaders, it happens from the people who are quietly in the corner doing things differently.” Phoenix succeeds, he believes when it stays true to its vision and mindful of its roots. “The opposite of addiction is connection,” he says. Most of what I’ve done is gotten people who are terrified of connection to open up.”
Although Charles is 60 years old, he recently started pursuing a Master’s in Leadership through Royal Roads University. “Many people ask me ‘why’ at my age,” he says, “but I always tell them when we stop learning, we stop being excited about the world.”