This piece originally appeared on Tenth to the Fraser in Issue Zero of our print magazine, April 2016, and was originally presented as a part of the Wait for Me, Daddy celebrations.
When I was 11 years old, two blocks from my home, a stand of trees grew on a strip of land. You’d cross a few streets from our home, and it would bring you to the place that we called The Woods.
It wasn’t a forest or a nature preserve or a park. Just leftover, neglected, underdeveloped parcel of land, fringed by tall grass and old trees in the middle. I’m sure now it would appear to be a mere back lot but back then it represented a place of freedom, a wilderness.
When there was enough of us to form two sides, my friends and I would head to it with stolen broom handles, broken hockey sticks, and garbage can lids in our hands and we would play our games, wargames.
Absolute anachronology ruled. We were fantastic eternal chameleons warriors. Nazi one moment, then shining elf, knight of the Round Table next, a merry man of Sherwood Forest, or even a Nazi Elf. It was all possible in the Woods.
For my tenth birthday, I got my first computer. There were no games on it, so I mostly just used it to type up the many short stories and journal entries I had composed in my ten years. Those files are still sitting on a floppy disc, which is currently in a box along with the macaroni crafts and storybooks of my childhood. It never once occurred to me that the ability to keep a record of those things is a privilege that, unfortunately, isn’t granted to everyone. New Westminster’s Royal City Writers (RCW) is working towards changing that.
New Westminster has been home to the Cliff Block, a transitional housing unit run by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, for over a decade. The residents of the Cliff Block, who have experienced challenges ranging from mental illness, to addiction, to homelessness, receive support, supervision, and direction from Lookout and the Cliff Block staff. Most importantly, they are given the opportunity to connect with their communities in a meaningful way.
I didn’t know about any of this until September of this year. Coming from Coquitlam, where there is no equivalent to Lookout, I’ve lived my life with a certain amount of distance between myself and places like the Cliff Block. While I was aware that organizations like that existed, I’d always operated under the assumption that they worked autonomously from the communities in which they were situated. That is, until this fall when I met local author Diane Haynes and began working with her and a small group of dedicated volunteers as part of Royal City Writers.
Launched just a few weeks ago, Royal City Writers’ pilot project pairs writers with residents of the Cliff Block. Over the course of eight weeks, our volunteers are conversing with residents, audio recording their words, and putting their stories into print. The project was built on the idea that storytelling forges powerful connections within communities, and our intention is to give voice to those stories that might otherwise go untold.
Haynes first came up with the idea earlier this year. “The inspiration for Royal City Writers came from two sources,” she says. “My own recent illness showed me how isolating such an experience can be. And my recovery involved the practice of yoga, which includes the concept of karma yoga. The idea is that you give back to your community the strength and peace you discover through your practice. I realized I could do that through writing.”
At surface level, it’s a simple idea, but one I think could make a big difference in the community at large. It’s an opportunity for people who are from a whole range of backgrounds, but are living in the same place, to learn from each other. We hope that this experience will prove equally meaningful for Cliff Block residents and volunteer writers alike. Since beginning work on the pilot project, we’ve recruited an absolutely fantastic group of volunteers ranging from a social activist to a librarian and children’s author to a victim support worker, all of whom are enthusiastic about bringing other people’s stories to light.
“I admit I was nervous when I entered the Cliff block for the first time,” says Holly Andrews, an RCW volunteer. “Who was I to walk into a stranger’s home and ask him to tell me about his life? But actually, my conversations with my writing partner have become a highlight of my week. Learning about schizophrenia from a person who has it has been incredibly eye opening, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to help him tell his story. Hopefully, sharing this story and others like it will challenge some of the stigmas associated with mental illness in our community.”
New West City Councilor Jonathan Cote believes “this is a project that has the capacity to bring the whole New West community closer together, to build connections between those who have experienced obstacles such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and addiction, and those who maybe have not. There’s huge potential here.”
As a small part of Royal City Writers, I can say that thus far, the pilot project is living up to Mr. Côté’s expectation. Writing partners have met with each other several times now, and the results have been encouraging. Working on the nuts and bolts of getting this project off the ground had distracted me from the bigger picture, but the stories that have emerged from the writing sessions have put everything back into perspective. Everyone has the right to speak and be heard, and I’m proud to be part of a project that allows people to do that.