Re-upholstering the human soul

By Joanne Steventon

Each day as André Parent arrives to work at the Good Day Workshop, he first makes his way past a bulletin board in the lunch room covered with dozens of names carved from wood. In the midst of these names is a lined piece of paper.

“Furniture to us is an instrument we use to get well,” it says. “We make old furniture look pretty again… The furniture is better and so am I.”

These names belong to people whose lives have been touched by this workshop. It’s a space where people suffering from depression, disabilities, mental illness or addictions come to restore not just furniture, but also their lives. This work keeps their hands busy and their minds off their troubles.

The workshop has employed Parent since August 2003. Tucked in the back corner of the Bronson Community Centre, this quiet 53-year-old shares his nearly forty-years of wood-working wisdom with participants of the program.

But, like the participants, Parent’s name also appears on the bulletin board. He arrived here two-and-a-half years ago in trouble.

“I didn’t know which way to go,” he says. “I didn’t know whether to go right or left. It was like a wheel going round and round.”

After some difficult times with his own woodworking business he says he started suffering from depression, which then evolved into something more serious.

“This depression drove me to first find something to feel good. I fell into booze, drugs and this went on for years and years,” he says.

He ended up out of work, spending his days on the streets and his nights in a tiny living space.

After hearing about Good Day from a friend, Parent signed up immediately. Working at the woodshop kept him busy during the day and away from the negative influences in his life.

“I got my life back. I don’t need drugs,” he says. “It’s just incredible what happened to me. I just came back to myself.”

The Good Day Workshop has been helping people like Parent since 1996. It was founded by Sister Marilyn McGrath, a member of the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Ottawa. She worked thirty years as a teacher and a principal, spending much of her time working with troubled children.

After retiring, she volunteered on the streets of Ottawa. She says the people she was seeing at various drop-in centres and shelters had nowhere to go and spend time, which made it difficult for them to stay away from the temptation of drugs and alcohol.

“They just had nothing to do — no reason to get up and out in the morning,” says McGrath.

“Another friend and myself said, ‘Why don’t we find something for these people to do, a place where they can come, meet new friends and be supported in a work atmosphere?’”

The idea of a woodshop came from a man she knew who lived on the street and spent his days collecting furniture to refinish.

McGrath says she thought a workshop would be an ideal environment for these people who she knew were fully capable of doing good work, but were seen as unemployable in any other setting because of their personal troubles.

“They were able to be here, they’re able to work, but they’re not able to take the stress of a real job,” she says.

Until a few years ago the Good Day Workshop was run by volunteers. It was first able to hire Steve Wix, who had done previous work for the Shepherds of Good Hope. Then, almost two years after arriving as a participant, Parent was hired-on full-time last August.

“His position is just so important. We just can’t do it without him,” says McGrath of Parent and his leadership role in the workshop.

Parent says he is extremely grateful for what Sister McGrath and her counterparts have done for him.

“The workshop, the whole system Sister Marilyn founded has made a big difference in my life,” he says. “Now it’s my turn, it’s payback time. I’m teaching and I’m trying to make a difference.”

There are usually between seven and eight participants in the shop each day who Parent helps guide through their work. Identified by their purple aprons, the participants are responsible for stripping and repairing the old furniture. They do work for private clients who are looking to give their belongings a facelift. They also repair donated items which they will eventually resell to support the shop.

After each piece is stripped and fixed, it’s sent down the hall to Parent in the staining room where the final touches are put on the projects.

With a few coats of stain Parent does justice to the hours of work spent stripping and repairing the pieces.

“Here I’m working on what looks like a cheap piece of furniture,” he says pointing to an old dresser.

“But when I’m done with it, it’s going to look like a million bucks.”

Parent is usually joined in the staining room by one or two participants with whom he will share his staining secrets.

Today Garrick Sliva is observing Parent’s careful finishing touches.

Sliva has come from a similar background to that of Parent, and shares a similar appreciation for what this program has done for him.

“I didn’t want to sit around and do nothing for the rest of my life,” he says. “I come to be active, and to learn off of André.”

Sliva is so confident of their work he jokes the name of the staining shop should actually be “The Magic Shop.”

When a piece is finished and has received Parent’s stamp of approval it is then sent to “the parlour” to be showcased until someone buys it.

Once a piece is in the parlour Parent steps aside and lets someone else put a price tag on the items.

“I’m not in that part of it because I would charge too much,” he jokes.

Sister Maureen McKeown, who has been with the program since it began eight years ago, says they don’t charge as much money as professional woodworkers. But she assures it isn’t because they don’t do quality work..

“We just so happen to do really good work, because our people are really skilled,” she says.

She says they charge a bit less simply because it takes longer for the furniture to be refinished and returned to its owner, due to the weekly rotation of the participants.

The money earned from this furniture goes directly back into the program to buy materials and to pay rent.

McKeown says it’s important for customers to keep in mind that they’re not just buying a service or a piece of furniture. She says their money keeps the program alive and has a direct and positive impact on the lives of participants.

While the participants are not paid for their work, McKeown says they receive invaluable support from the program.

The program provides more than just skills and a safe place to spend time to its participants. They are also given a warm meal everyday, plus snacks and coffee. If they need new clothes, a haircut or even help opening a bank account, the program provides this support.

For Parent, the greatest pay-off for his work isn’t his paycheck.

“I love to see their faces when they say, ‘Oh my God, I’m in love with it.’ When they say that, I know it’s true,” says Parent. “It makes you feel important.”

This comes from a man who was so down on his luck just over two years ago that he says he was almost willing to take his own life.

“Today, I don’t know how to say it, I’m up there,” he says. “They hired me and it changed my life forever.”