Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Little refuge' fills big void

Rossbrook staff creates Christmas magic for inner-city kids

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Rossbrook House junior staff members Ronald Gabriel (right) and Aiden Sizer do a little Christmas wrapping on Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Rossbrook House junior staff members Ronald Gabriel (right) and Aiden Sizer do a little Christmas wrapping on Monday. Photo Store

'Twas the night before Christmas Eve and all through the House, well, pretty much every little creature was stirring.

A gaggle of girls was skipping rope on the main floor of Rossbrook House. A handful of boys was parked in front of a TV screen, playing Call of Duty. In the downstairs rec area, a couple of 12-year-old buddies, Big James and Skyler, were shooting pool, while the junior staff was busy fixing up a lunch of chicken noodle soup and cheesy buns.

Just another day at Rossbrook House, the Ross Avenue refuge for inner-city kids that has over the last three decades become a beacon for children in need.

Of food. Of shelter. Of safety. Or just someone who gives a damn.

"It's someplace to be safe," said James, 12, who is a regular at Rossbrook. Adds pal Skyler: "I like the dances and everything. It's awesome. I like being chased by girls."

But Rossbrook seen through the prism of Christmas changes, too. Although the facility will average 1,500 "visitors" a year, the holiday season is a barrage of parties for all age groups, both boys and girls, including the program for young mothers and their infants. Santa visits the whole shebang.

Rossbrook is open 24 hours a day from Christmas Eve to New Year's. And every year, said co-executive director Phil Chiapetta, there will be at least one child whose situation will strike a note with the 30-some staff members.

"We often said to each other, 'That's why we're open 24 hours,' " Chiapetta said. "It's just a nice feeling. That blue Christmas is around for a lot of people but we just put that aside and enjoy the moment. You kind of get this little refuge at Rossbrook. We're like a second home."

When first conceived by Sister Geraldine MacNamara of the Sisters of the Holy Name in the mid-1970s -- the Catholic nun basically joined forces with a gang of resident juvenile delinquents to found the place in an abandoned church -- Christmas at Rossbrook would probably have consisted of a warm room, a turkey sandwich and maybe a candy cane.

"It wasn't anything spectacular but it was something," recalled Warren Goulet, one of the founding members of Rossbrook who left his life on the street to help "Sister Mac" create this sanctuary.

Now 37 years later, Goulet, 54, is operations manager who devotes his time to giving kids a Christmas they might not have at home. "We have a lot of parties," he said. "Which is basically another adventure for them. I think we have a way to fill a void for them that they might not otherwise be able to experience."

Even to this day, however, Goulet is amazed at how so many children who show up on Christmas Day without a present, and are just happy to see their group of friends. "Most young people would be down and out and sad," said Goulet. "The thing that struck me is there wasn't a blink when they said they didn't get anything."

These days, Rossbrook is rife with toys that counsellors ensure fall into the right hands. There is a turkey dinner cooked on Christmas Day by staff in the facility's restaurant-quality kitchen.

"Christmas is special," said Maria Vigna, another co-executive director. "There's an intensity around the season that I don't know how to describe to you. Whatever kids are feeling is maybe felt a little more intensely. So it's important to be here for them. It's very special for us to be able to celebrate with the kids and to welcome them in and be sure they're OK. But they also know we're here all the time."

After all, It's a Wonderful Life is just a movie. The holidays are always a double-edged sword of emotions.

"The kids still have that real magic in them," Chiapetta allowed. "They're looking forward to the presents and Santa. But for some of the older kids on the night shift, it can be rough."

And just as emotional for the staff -- many of whom are former Rossbrook kids -- who see themselves in the children who show up at the old church's door.

"There's kids here on Christmas Day and you wonder why are they here?" noted supervisor Val Henderson. "Why aren't they with their families? You just want to take them all home. But at least Rossbrook House is here for them. They're safe."

Henderson, now in her 40s, first showed up at Rossbrook House as a 12-year-old looking for a safe place to hang out one night at 2 a.m. She hasn't really left since.

"I fell in love with the place," she said.

Henderson attended school through Rossbrook. She received her first real Christmas gift here. "The wrapping was so nice," she recalled, "I didn't even want to open it."

Four months ago, a 13-year-old girl showed up and befriended Henderson, who said, "She reminds me of me. She seems so sad, but at the same time she's so innocent."

Needless to say, the young girl is now on Henderson's Christmas list. She bought her a "cool, girlie" scarf.

"That hurts sometimes," she said, of relating to what children can experience during the holidays. "It breaks my heart. If they're doing without or don't have anything at home. It's a very emotional time. (But) I think of it as a way of giving back. I feel I owe a lot to Rossbrook House. Rossbrook raised me."

Dylan, just 16, can relate, too. He was just seven years old when he first paid a visit to Rossbrook. He even remembers his first Christmas gift from the Rossbrook Santa: a Connect Four board game.

Just this past week, it was a grown-up Dylan's turn to be Santa for the six- to 10-year-olds party. "It felt good," he beamed. "It made me go home with a smile on my face."

But if you ask what Christmas means at Rossbrook House, Vigna will tell you the story about a six-year-old boy who came to the centre a couple of years ago. His mother had just died a couple of days before. Staff were watching the boy like a hawk, just in case.

"He was just sitting there waiting for Santa to come in but you could tell he was grieving and he was sad," Vigna recalled. "Just then, a little girl his same age came and sat next to him. She put her arm around him and said, 'It's OK.'

Then the little girl just sat there for a moment. She turned to the boy and said, "You know, your mom is watching you."

Every time Vigna tells the story, she is reminded of the Rossbrook House mission statement, "No child who does not want to be alone should ever have to be."

"And here I saw it (the statement) lived out in these two little people; a little girl who was able to comfort her friend, who knew he didn't have to be alone in this," she said. "It just upheld to me what happens here. It really is a family."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 A3

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Updated on Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 5:37 AM CST: Replaces photo

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