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Changing minds, changing lives: Dans la rue marks milestone

Having completed its first quarter of a century, Dans la rue, founded by Father Emmett Johns in 1988, is ready for new challenges.

Year 26 sees the realization of a long-held dream: the building of safe housing.

“We’re going to be finishing the final phase of construction of 17 apartments in November,” says Dorothy Massimo, director of communications and development.

“These are for our youth, and two will be reserved for parents and families who used Dans la rue services and are holding down a job or going to school.”

As many recall, it all began with a van, free hot dogs, and a good dose of non-judgmental listening. “We had the van, the emergency shelter with 17 beds, and a day centre,” Massimo says. “Now we have that fourth element that completes the whole process.”

Over the years, Dans la rue has helped vulnerable street kids gain access to shelter, school and job opportunities. A thousand kids pass through its doors each year, Massimo says. The organization has left an indelible mark on many who were involved in the helping process, as well.

David Finch and friend Rhema Walters recently held a fundraiser for Dans la rue that featured live music and comedy. Finch’s involvement with the organization goes back to the early ’90s, when he was a student and thought that volunteering would look good on his CV.

“I started for purely selfish reasons but this whole thing led me in another direction,” he recalls, adding that he never expected to stay for four years.

“It was a weird and wonderful experience. Here were people, some older than me, who had never had what I had. It was quite an eye opener.

“I saw these, (to me) very scary-looking people dressed in punk regalia. I hung out with people like that who were going to clubs, but were not street kids. A lot of my friends looked that scruffy, but these were the real deal.”

Finch first worked on the van. “We had to walk around with Father Johns through the night in some parts of town and tell kids what we were doing, hand out condoms to prostitutes and we were getting to know the people, not just what they looked like. Some would show up nights I would be working just to talk to me.”

Finch realized the street kids had histories and reasons for doing what they did.

He started to understand that the exploitation some kids suffered was not just from ignorance of the consequences. Some had no choice.

“It was from absolute necessity, there was nothing else for them.”

He has the greatest affection and admiration for Father Johns, who is now 83.

“Pops is a wonderful guy. He calls himself a flawed angel. He was the only one to do this. He had the fortitude and determination. He was not that popular with church hierarchy, he was a bit of a loner and he felt he could do this, never mind whatever anyone else thought.”

With Pops’s encouragement, Finch, founder of Picture This Productions, returned to Dans la rue over the years to make fiction and documentary films about and with the youth.

“I learned a lot,” Finch says. “A one-on-one relationship is most important. You need somebody to care.

“Pop’s first step was to make friends with the kids, nothing else. People were comfortable with him. He gave them the support they needed, shelter, school, a job, so that they have someplace to go. The young mothers’ program and the permanent housing they are trying to establish were Pops’s dream.”

There is no underestimating the value of the work Dans la rue is doing, Finch says.

“Street kids become street adults if you don’t watch out.”

To donate to Dans la Rue, call 514-526-5222 or see danslarue.org.

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