It’s a simple question I pose to Valerie Christie: Where do you think you’d be without Youth Opportunities Unlimited?
“I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I’d be dead.”
When you’re casting about for reasons to support the downtown agency known as YOU — that place in the recently renovated building on the corner of York and Richmond streets that offers housing, training and support to troubled youth — it’s hard to come up with a more compelling reason than that.
You can talk all you want about unemployment numbers and career trends, or housing statistics and poverty percentages. You can even fill the silence with endless hours of psycho-babble about self-esteem and mental health.
But that all flies out the window when you stand in front of this 22-year-old woman who credits YOU with saving her life.
“I honestly think that if I hadn’t found them, there’s no way I’d be where I am right now,” she says. “I wouldn’t be alive.”
I won’t pretend to understand the painful path Christie has trod. And there are parts of the story — a story she’ll explain as a featured speaker at YOU’s annual fundraising breakfast Tuesday — she prefers not to disclose.
But it’s enough to know that somewhere along the line, the life of this talented athlete — a woman who was studying kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., and training with the school’s cross-country team — got derailed by depression and what she terms a “significant attempt” at suicide.
“I ended up in and out of hospital,” she says. “And then, that’s kind of how I got homeless because I couldn’t hold down a job, I couldn’t go to school and I had no money.”
She stayed with a sister. She couch-surfed with friends. She was prescribed various medications. And for a long time, it looked like her future was something that didn’t exist. And then a community running coach told her about YOU.
She checked it out and spent a lot of hours hanging out at the agency’s drop-in centre. Then, for about six months, she ended up living in one of YOU’s transitional housing units. Counsellors helped her connect with Ontario Works, coached her on things like cooking and budgeting, and then helped steer her onto a track back to school.
“The staff (at YOU), they got me talking, they found out what I want to do with my life,” says Christie. “Because when I’m struggling with mental health stuff, I can’t see that. I can’t see how it’s going to happen. And they remind me of all the things I’ve told them I want to do.”
These days, she’s living on her own and studying nursing at Western University.
“It might sound cliche,” she says quietly. “But they believed in me when I didn’t.”
It would be naive to suggest Christie’s troubles have been magically solved. It would be wrong to assume a happy ending is guaranteed; Christie acknowledges there are still days when things seem dark and difficult.
“I still pop in (to YOU) and talk to them a lot, because I’m still struggling,” she says. “But I know I don’t want to die.”
Ian Gillespie is the Free Press city columnist.