Joel was born to a well-off suburban family, but his parents divorced when he was four. His mother moved homes constantly, looking for her own sense of place and purpose. For Joel and his little sister, that meant a series of new schools and neighbourhoods.
Then one day when Joel was in high school, his mother abandoned him and his sister. He was sent to live with his father and his sister went to child protection. Shortly afterwards, their mother came to take his sister back from the authorities and they moved to Alberta together. But she left Joel forever with no explanation.
Life with his father, step-mom and half-brothers seemed alright at first, but Joel felt unwanted and lost, an inconvenient afterthought. He began to experiment with drugs in high school and they quickly started to affect his behaviour. At 17, his father kicked him out.
“I felt anger, sadness, revenge, hopelessness, confusion,” says Joel. “It was like a knot in my gut—a knot that was with me for years.”
Joel’s drug addiction fueled his every decision. He moved from province to province searching for belonging—a rootless wanderer like his mother had been. “There is nothing more exhausting than being an addict on the run,” explains Joel. “You’ve got to find food, got to find dope, got to try to act like a regular person.” Charming and affable, Joel was often able to crash on couches and occasionally work as a bartender, but he spent more than a few nights either in men’s shelters or on the street for over five dark years.
Back in Ontario, a minor assault charge landed Joel in a correctional facility for 40 days. When he was released, Covenant House was suggested to him. Joel was hostile and closed when he arrived. “I had a strong resentment towards the whole human race. I think I was just in a state of shock that my life had gotten this bad,” he recalls.
A month later, Joel had started using drugs again. His lack of control and the prospect of a bleak future terrified him. While he was sitting in a nearby coffee shop, he began to pray, “God, if you are real, I need help.” Joel describes feeling a sense of love, warmth and peace at that moment. He walked back to Covenant House to visit our chapel and he prayed some more. He has not touched drugs or alcohol since.
Joel reached out to the other youth for friendship and support. He speaks with poetic eloquence on their influence. “I felt so blessed to be with the other youth at Covenant House. We all had dysfunctional families. We had all been kicked out. But when we all took off our armour at the end of the day, we were able to be vulnerable with each other. We felt we were all in this together, striving for real, hopeful goals.”
Joel is grateful for the sense of peace that Covenant House gave him by providing for his needs while he focused on his future. He appreciated that our staff members made calls to his worried grandmother and also connected with his father. “They reached out to my family to reassure them and help re-establish bridges, because I lost all credibility with them. Covenant House was able to vouch for me,” he says.
Joel applied as a mature student to the University of Toronto with a heartfelt essay on why he should be accepted in spite of his poor high school grades. He was accepted conditionally on successful completion of a history course. He did so well, he won a partial scholarship and full-time acceptance. He is now majoring in Equity Studies, an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on social justice.
Joel’s dream is to become a criminal defense lawyer to advocate for young people who wish to reintegrate into society. “The young people here gave me a passion for helping people in difficult situations,” he explains brightly. “I want to be a light, a beacon to other youth, so they know that it doesn’t matter how far you slip down—it matters how high you bounce back.”
This Christmas, Joel will spend some time at his father’s home with his younger brothers. For him, it will be a festive time filled with family, good friends, love, faith and a whole lot to celebrate.