Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Letting in the light

Musical project gives a voice to often marginalized citizens... plus it's got a good beat and you can dance to it

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Today, Sunshine House lives up to its name. Afternoon sunlight streams in through the windows, warming up the cosy main room. The walls are cluttered with art and the air smells of fresh coffee. A vase bursting with cheery yellow tulips sits on the craft table, where nearly 200 festively hand-painted shakers have been readied for a concert.

Sunshine House is a drop-in centre located at the corner of Logan and Sherbrook that largely serves street-involved and homeless people, many of whom are affected by addiction, HIV and the hepatitis C virus.

With an emphasis on harm reduction, Sunshine House offers basic support services -- including meals, laundry facilities, shower facilities, a clothing depot, computer access and access to health resources -- and is one of the only facilities of its kind open to solvent users.

It's also the site of a band/recording project dubbed JD and the Sunshine Band, spearheaded by singer/songwriter JD Ormond. He, along with a cast of local musicians -- guitarist Vince Andrushko, drummers (and brothers) Adrian and Gilbert Spence, accordionist Shelley Marshall of Nathan Recording Co. -- provides the backbone of the band, while the Shiners, a crew of Sunshine House drop-ins, provide the heart. They contribute all manner of percussion, backup vocals and lyrics. Drop-ins don't have to participate, but most do.

'(Sunshine House) operates on the understanding that there's never the intention to fix anybody. But we want to make the stuff that goes on here as interesting and dynamic as possible so that people will come and use it.'

The band, which meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 until 4 p.m., has recorded an album at Sunshine House -- with the assistance of Blake Thomson of local roots act the F-Holes -- and is celebrating with a CD release show/fundraiser at Crossways in Common. It's the culmination of months of hard work and a lot of fun.

The recording project is an extension of the Solvent Users' Recreation Project (SURP). Co-ordinated by Sunshine House staff and delivered in partnership with Mount Carmel Clinic, the program is designed to engage solvent users -- among the most marginalized individuals in the city -- in recreational activities. The goal? Enhance participants' quality of life, help them build skills and expand support networks.

"(Sunshine House) operates on the understanding that there's never the intention to fix anybody," says Margaret Ormond, special projects manager at Sunshine House and JD's mom. "But we want to make the stuff that goes on here as interesting and dynamic as possible so that people will come and use it."

SURP launched in November 2012 with a drop-in art group held on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Participants painted a mural, created the Sunshine House sign and did beading and other crafts. It wasn't long before SURP evolved into a series of modules that lasted between five and eight weeks each. These modules offered everything from boxing and bike repair to photography and drum-making.

But, by far and away, the most popular module was music. When SURP's pilot wrapped in the summer of 2013, JD and the rest of the evaluation committee assessed each module to see what worked -- and what could be built upon to perhaps bring in some revenue. "We don't have any core funding here anymore," JD says. That's a real frustration at Sunshine House, which relies on fundraising. They want to do more.

As a songwriter, Ormond was also interested in telling the stories of Sunshine House's patrons.

"We decided to open up the drop-in again after we decided to make the album, but there was a period that was in limbo. I knew I wanted to make an album, but the format was a challenge. How am I going to encapsulate the stories and everything and make an album based around this population? How am I going to do this appropriately? Am I going to rent a room at the West Hotel (on Main Street)? Probably not."

So JD worked collaboratively with participants. He wasn't short on inspiration; as his mother says of Sunshine House, "There are lots of stories here." Many of them are sad; many of them are funny. He took those raw details and shaped them into original songs that are punctuated by in-jokes and slang. The album, which also features beautiful artwork by local artist James Culleton, is a document of the people who made it.

People like Marvin, one of the group's most gregarious participants. He cracks jokes and has an easy laugh. He sits in the front row and makes sure the Shiners keep time. He plays the kazoo.

For Marvin, the Sunshine Band has been a lifeline. "It keeps me away from stuff -- and it keeps me out of trouble," he says, as the band jams in the background. "Sniffing took away half my life. I'm 40 years old, and I've been sniffing for half my life. It was a hard thing to get off. I quit sniffing for my dad's birthday -- March 17, 2004." Ten years later, Marvin can't stand the smell of solvents.

"You know, it's also just fun up there," he adds. "We had a rehearsal and Neechi Foods and everyone was still clapping after the song was over. That was a good feeling."

JD echoes that sentiment. "It's a lot of fun," he says. "And it's an opportunity for people to be involved with something that will have legs beyond this."

 

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2014 D1

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