TO the outside world, Melanie is the bright light that shines in whichever room is lucky enough to be illuminated by her presence.
Exuding energy and armed with a smile that could arrest any frown, the single mom is the picture of health who lives for her three kids, age 13, 12 and 10.
As much as people she meets enthuse about her positive personality, it doesn’t, however, speak to the darkness of teenage years tainted with abuse and drugs and the diagnosis of terminal cancer Melanie defeated to be the person that now bounces to the beat of a new life designed and constructed by herself, ably assisted by Touchstone Family Association’s Front Porch program.
Only five months ago, she got her first job in six years, working part-time in sales at one of Richmond’s leading gyms.
And at the end of this month, Melanie will complete her initial night school course on the way to realizing one of her dreams of becoming a fully-fledged personal trainer.
This Family Day long weekend, to tie a ribbon on that gift of a new life, Melanie has a big party planned with her kids, relatives and close friends to celebrate not only family, but also the beginning of a new chapter in her story.
“My kids and the people close to me are amazing; they are my family, they take care of me and I’m so looking forward to the party,” said Melanie, 31, who asked for her last name to be withheld.
“I’m now able to do fantastic things with them and I will get to watch my kids grow up.
“I run alongside my kids, whether they’re playing football, basketball or dancing. Some people worry and ask me to calm down; but I can’t, because I’m so excited. I want to be right there with them all the way.
“I fought for that feeling. I fought to be where I am right now and I have to keep going as I know how fast it can all be taken away from you.”
Wind the clock back a little more than three years and Melanie wasn’t in such a happy place.
Despite her cervical cancer going into remission in 2009 (she was told that same year she had six weeks to live until she had a life-saving operation), she was still, in 2012, a very sick woman, both in body and, by her own admission, in her mind.
She needed help, badly. Not just for her own sake, but that of her kids as well.
“I wanted to fight it and wanted to survive. I knew I had to find the motivation and I had to let go of the pain of the present and the past,” said Melanie, who lives in the Blundell neighbourhood and has called Richmond home for more than eight years.
“I felt this impossibly heavy load of the past. But I wanted to be strong for my kids.
“But I refused to accept I was that sick and I did not want my kids to be left alone. I wanted to survive.”
Searching for some kind of counselling other than what the cancer agency had been offering, Melanie found Touchstone and was placed into the Richmond agency’s Front Porch program, which offers barrier-free access to counselling and support services to anyone who asks for it.
“I was nervous about calling them at first, but my goal at that point was survival,” she recalled.
“They essentially helped me get my life in order.
At Touchstone, I discovered how valuable I was and how much I was worth.
“I was listened to in a totally different way; (my counsellor) was the first person to actually listen and she helped me believe in myself.
“I didn’t want to keep carrying this suitcase full of things from the past. So, she said, ‘leave it here.’ So I did.”
Three years on, it’s now been a month since Melanie’s last counselling session and although she admits it wasn’t easy to let go of that support, she now relies only on a “vision board” she created to keep in focus where’s she’s been and where she wants to go with her new life.
“I keep the board at the foot of my bed to remind myself every day that I have a life to live; that I deserve it and that I am valuable,” she said.
“Today, I feel amazing; amazing. That’s the only word that fits how I feel.
“I feel alive in more ways than one. I was told I was going to die and my “whiteboard” of life was wiped clean; everything was erased.
“One year ago, I was told I was going to live. I said to myself ‘I’m going to run, swim, play football with my kids.
“I have been planning to write a book that I started 10 years ago, but my life always got in my way to write it.
“But I now know that was because the story was not done. I found the ending of my story happens to be the beginning of my new life that I designed.
“I hope to share that with people one day and maybe inspire people to never give up.”
A counsellor’s view
Lending an objective ear and listening to what someone has to say, as hailed in Melanie’s story, seems such a simple way to offer help to families.
But that, among other skills, has been what Touchstone family counsellor Kelly Gault has been doing for more than 10 years of steering people and their families onto a path of healing.
And while many of the issues she’s presented with from clients — who range from siblings to couples to parent/teens — remain the same, Gault has witnessed a few marked changes in the people she’s asked to help.
“We are starting to see people across cultures seeking out more services; I guess it’s trust level thing and de-stigmatization of mental health issues in some cultures,” said Gault, explaining that the Front Porch program is open to anyone who needs help and is a preventative measure for personal referrals, as opposed to referrals from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
As for the kinds of issues people are coming to her with, Gault said, in Richmond, mental health and financial stress tops the list.
“People often feel like they are not being understood by their wives, husbands or parents,” she said.
“It’s the little things in life that tend to build up and become a bigger problem.
“In Richmond in particular, with its high immigrant population, lots of times children aged from five to 10 have a hard time assimilating to life here because of the conflict of the two cultures.”
Getting people to understand their behaviour and be more aware of how it’s affecting others is the first step, added Gault, in the healing process.
“Recognizing that you need to change and what you want from that relationship is a key factor,” she said.
“Skill acquisition and then practicing those new behaviours in real life is the next step.
“I don’t want to create a dependency on us; we want to give them the skills and tools to support each other and themselves.”
If you would like to help support Touchstone's Front Porch program, go to www.fundaid.ca/touchstone
The News asked other Touchstone counsellors to share their experiences of helping turn people’s lives around through the agency’s Front Porch program.
Here are a few of them:
A young man came to see me who was experiencing tremendous anxiety.
This anxiety made going to school, maintaining friendships and day-to-day activities, such as making his bed or taking a shower, very difficult.
He developed unhealthy coping strategies that become obsessive and compulsive behaviours.
His parents were aware of the problem to some degree, but had no idea of the profound impact on his life; they thought he just had poor social skills.
Once the full extent of the issue became clear, the young man and I sat with his parents to get them to fully understand the nature of the problem but also to elicit their support.
The young man was quite ashamed and thought his parents would be angry with him or worse, reject him.
We slowly developed strategies that included exposure to the things that troubled him as well as gently challenging some of the distorted thoughts he had.
Having his parents support was tremendous, in time he felt more comfortable sharing his struggle with a friend who not only understood, but declared that he also struggled with anxiety.
He has some good days and some bad days, but the good days outnumber the bad days and that has made all the difference.
I can recall a story about a young adult who has benefited from counselling support through this program. This individual did not have any connection with the Ministry, nor did they want their family to know they were receiving support.
By being able to access counselling through the Front Porch, this individual was able to move through the depression that clouded their world.
Not only did this individual receive techniques to stabilize their mood, they learned how to reach out to their loved ones and accept support from them. Through connecting with a Touchstone counsellor, this client was then connected to community support otherwise not known to them.
By providing this individual with the tools needed to stand on their one two feet, we have been able to change a life.
Most importantly, this individual learned the skills needed to connect with the supports they were not aware they already had in their own circle.
This is one example of many success stories that can be measured by how we as counsellors, provide individuals with the tools they need to live a happy and successful life by accessing the supports they may not have been aware they already had, and thus learning to stand on their own two feet.
A man in his early 40s referred himself to the Front Porch program.
He reported that he was struggling in his common law relationship. “Ralph” regularly attended counselling sessions and worked with a counsellor to learn new skills to improve the communication between himself and his partner.
He was also referred by the counsellor to a men’s group run by Touchstone Family Association to learn additional strategies to better manage his frustration and anger.
When counselling was completed, Ralph stated that he felt confident that he could use more constructive approaches to communicate with his partner while reducing conflict between them.