Mark’s childhood home was a battle zone. After a long day at work, Mark’s father would sometimes explode in anger and beat Mark with his belt. Hardened from her own difficult life, his mother was often cold and hostile to her son as well.
Mark went to school many times with a black eye given to him by either his father or mother. Once when he was 13 years old, the police came to his home three times in three days due to domestic disturbances and shortly afterwards, the police picked Mark up at school to take him to a half-way house for boys.
The house was mostly for boys awaiting criminal trials, but there was no other place for a scrappy kid from Cambridge to go. The staff at the house saw something unique in Mark and they seemed to hold him to a higher standard. Even though the other boys were tutored at the house, the staff arranged for Mark to attend a community school. He lived in the house for four long years before he was too old to stay there.
After a brief attempt to live independently, Mark decided to “run away” to Toronto. But he wasn’t running from anyone. There was nobody in the world who would miss him.
Coming in from the west on the Greyhound bus, Mark saw the Toronto skyline appear over the horizon. The vitality and ambitious spirit of the city gave him an instant feeling of connection. He knew he was home.
But, the romance of his big city adventure faded that first night when Mark tried to sleep on a bench in a park filled with much older homeless men. A brutal fight broke out between two of the men, and he knew he was not in a safe place.
The next night, Mark found himself in one of the city’s roughest men’s shelter. The screaming of men suffering from psychotic breaks pierced the night. One man told him he should sleep with his boots on in case another resident attacked him and he needed to jump out of bed to make a run for it. After four terrifying nights there, a kind older resident told him, “I wish I was a kid like you and could go to Covenant House.” Mark dared to hope that there was a better place for him.
When Mark came to us, he found it was a difficult adjustment. “There is no question the staff cares deeply,” he explains. “It’s almost a scary thing to get used to after years of nobody caring at all about you.” Learning to take advice and direction from people who were invested in him was hard.
Mark began to draw strength from the youth workers and teachers who supported him. Their mentorship and concern for him helped him develop a self-confidence that would power him forward. “My ego saved me. Some people use drugs to ease their pain, but I had my ego,” he says. “I always thought, ‘I’m better than what’s happened to me. I’m going to change the world.’”
Mark’s pride was both a source of strength and a liability. He attended school in the community, got a job at a pizza parlour and moved out on his own. He felt like the world was his to conquer. It was not long before he stopped going to school, because he was making money working instead, but then he lost his job and his apartment. “I walked back to Covenant House bawling,” he says. The sting of failure devastated him. Defeated and empty, he begged for another chance.
Mark’s youth worker took a firm tone with him and told him frankly that he needed to “smarten up”. He made it clear to Mark that he believed he was capable of great things, but that he would always struggle if he did not cultivate some humility and self-discipline.
Mark was running out of time. Soon he would be too old to stay in a youth shelter. He remembered the older men in his brief stay at the men’s shelter and he realized what was at stake. With his worker’s help, Mark put together a plan to build the life he wanted for himself.
Mark went back to the community school and pleaded with the vice-principal to let him return. While he was in school, he applied himself and became a fixture there. He joined the hockey and basketball teams, and looked for opportunities to be a leader. He completed his academics quickly. He also got a weekend job at a lumberyard. After he moved out on his own again, he made frequent use of our drop-in centre, even if he was just checking in for some advice and encouragement.
It has been a few years since Mark stayed with us. Today, Mark is a paramedic and he runs his own first aid training company. He is married to the love of his life and has two young children, a girl and a boy. He has also reconciled with his parents. His father has done his best to make amends and has taken on the role of a caring grandpa.
Mark believes that Covenant House played a critical role in making him that man he is today. “I always got the right balance of ‘pat on the head’ and ‘kick in the pants’ at Covenant House,” he says.
Mark recently connected with us on Facebook to say thank you. “As a former Covenant House kid, and proud to be, I’m always a little awed by where I am as opposed to where I could have wound up without Covenant House. I found out that my Grandma donated to “Cov” yearly, and I thank God you guys were there. Now I run my own business, Rescue One First Aid & CPR, www.rescueone.ca, and Covenant House has a hand in every life we save. You literally improved the future. Now I just hope I can pay it back, and forward, one day.”
This summer, Mark will provide first aid training to staff at Covenant House. He is proud to be able to give back.
*The top image is a stock photo representing Mark at a younger age. Here is Mark today.