Coming onto the grounds of the Thunderbird Project, one is immediately struck by the fact that a community has been built within the confines of the old Thunderbird Motel.
People smile a greeting and others engage in conversation outside their “homes.”
Thunderbird is a project of the Hope and Area Transition Society, and it provides shelter for the most hard-to-house individuals in the community – those with addictions, mental health issues, economic hurdles, or other aspects of their lives that have made it virtually impossible for them to live anywhere but the street.
But, according to Paul Keller, the Thunderbird Project’s program co-ordinator, the community he has helped build at the motel is much more than simply housing for the homeless.
“It’s a real community out there, with an emphasis on belonging, acceptance, and community contribution,” he said.
“A lot of these people are very lonely, without family or community connections and they are chronically homeless. It’s a population that has been so ignored for so long … set aside by society … Here, they have a chance to become part of a community where they can be among friends and help one another. It’s amazing that they manage to solve a lot of their own community problems before we ever hear about them.”
The residents at the Thunderbird Project’s 24 cabins have no set limits on their residency, some staying for years and others for relatively short periods of time.
There are also a small number of shelter beds for more transient clients, whose stay is limited to 30 days. Extreme-weather shelters are opened periodically, and can house another 15 clients for short periods.
“The residents here are operating at a whole range of abilities and levels,” Keller said.
“Some have active addictions and some have mental health problems. Others are facing other challenges that prevent them from being employable or in finding housing of their own. But everyone who stays here has to be prepared to work on their own lives and develop a plan to help them rejoin mainstream society. We provide help with addictions, legal problems, health issues and harm reduction. There are programs for literacy, employment, and outreach services that all help to build trust and respectful relationships.”
Keller said part of the program at the Thunderbird Project involves the care and cultivation of three acres of fruit trees, berry patches and garden space. The clients pitch in to help care for the grounds and harvest the produce, which is then consumed at the community kitchen at the site.
“We also have other work that the residents here do, from cooking and cleaning to other maintenance work that has to be done. It’s a community and they work for themselves and for others.”
It’s not surprising that Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for the residents at the project. It is, after all, a time for family and celebration and, for those whose lives may not include any family and offer little reason for celebration, watching the season unfold can be heart-wrenching.
“Listen, Christmas is a tough season for anyone who has experienced a loss and these people have lost more than most of us can imagine. A lot of them have been kicked to the curb by society,” Keller said.
“But it’s also an opportunity to engage. We do a Christmas party and the high school kids come out and do a party for the community here. We even have Santa show up and distribute gifts to the folks.
“We decorate and have a wonderful meal, and there’s laughter and conversation. We make a difference.”
Gerry Dyble, the executive director of the Hope and Area Transition Society, under whose umbrella the Thunderbird Project operates, believes that everyone can offer a most important gift to the residents of the Thunderbird Project, as well as to other less fortunate individuals we may see on the streets of Hope and elsewhere.
“Suspend your judgment. And even if the people you run into may not be demonstrating respect for themselves or for the community, show them that respect. Look them in the eye and see them as a person,” Dyble said.
“You have to realize that these people didn’t wake up one morning and decide that they wanted to be addicted, or have mental health problems or live on the street. Acknowledge them as people and show them respect and afford them some dignity. Maybe that’s the best gift you can give and it’s the gift the Thunderbird Project offers every day.”