Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2008 (3174 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
And addressed to the Free Press.
"My name is Calli Vanderaa.
"I'm 9 years old and I live with my daddy.
"One day we found a little puppy in the BFI bin in our lane. Somebody had put three puppies in there and set them on fire.
"Two of the puppies died but daddy and I saved one that was sitting in the corner crying. We took her home and named her Jessie. She is happy and growing bigger every day..."
The return address was a house in a section of the North End that is, arguably, the most dangerous neighbourhood in the city.
So it was that one Sunday afternoon, late last month, I dropped by the house where the rescued puppy lives.
I thought I was looking for details on a cruelty-to-animals story.
But, as it turned out, it was about much more than that.
* * *
The dog was barking before I even knocked.
The reinforced front door had a strategically placed hunk of wood where the window once was. And a security peephole. The door opened and a tall young man, wearing a baseball cap turned backwards, invited me in.
Corey Vanderaa, Calli's 34-year-old father, knew why I had dropped by unannounced as soon as I introduced myself.
At first I didn't notice the black, Louisville Slugger, leaning in the corner by the front door.
What I did notice was how orderly and immaculate the house seemed.
Corey had been preparing dinner and watching an NFL game when I arrived.
I noticed Calli's Christmas list on the fridge.
It consisted of four wishes.
At the top of the list was an Avril Lavigne poster.
Calli is a bright-eyed and outgoing little girl, so she was happy to sit down and talk about her now five-month-old pup, Jessie.
The pup was seven weeks old last June when Calli heard the dog crying while helping her dad dispose of grass clippings in a large trash container behind their rented house.
The container was so big her dad had to use a stool to reach in and pluck Jessie's limp body out of the bin.
Someone had also taken the time to plug the pup's anus with green gum.
Calli saw her dad remove the gum, but she didn't see the charred remains of the other puppies.
Still, it had an impact.
"I was just kind of shocked," Calli said in her little-girl voice and little-girl way.
I asked Corey if his daughter had shown any signs of trauma because of the way the other pups had died.
"Not this one," her father said. "Not after what we've gone though. No."
I didn't ask what he meant by that. It sounded as if it might be too personal. Maybe a reference to his former wife -- and Calli's mother -- who left the family and moved to the United States when her baby daughter was a year-and -a-half old.
As it turned out, I didn't have to pry.
Corey volunteered what he meant by what they've been through.
It's the neighbourhood.
They moved into the North End two years ago because of the rent and the space the house offers. The $700-a-month rent includes washer and dryer and utilities.
It's been a tough trade-off, though.
The vacant lot two doors down was once home to a crack house.
Until the house was firebombed.
And charred pups in trash containers aren't the only corpses Calli has heard about.
"There was a dead guy in my backyard," Corey said. "I couldn't even go to work because there was a crime scene and I couldn't pull my car out."
In fact, last year six of the city's drug or gang-related slayings happened within two streets of where Corey and his daughter live.
Then there's what Calli actually has been forced to watch and deal with.
Between ages seven and nine, Calli has seen people battling with baseball bats, a half-naked, stoned-out woman weaving along the street out front, been sworn at in school for being "white," and forced to defend herself three times in school fights.
She now takes judo.
"It's for my own protection," Calli said.
"She can't even walk to the store," her father said.
Not after what happened last summer, when a 13 or 14-year-old boy used a pellet gun to shoot Calli in the back of her shoulder.
"But," Corey said, "there are lot of good people down here, believe it or not."
And winter tends to slow down the street-drug traffic out front and homicides out back.
Still, Corey is always watching his daughter.
When he's home, that is.
He works six days a week, driving long-haul truck.
In the winter he works even longer hours, topping up his income by clearing snow for the city.
Sunday is usually his only day off.
So every other day, his 76-year-old mother, Betty Vanderaa, drives across town from comparatively genteel St. Vital and enters a gang-and-drug murder zone to be there for her granddaughter when her son can't be.
Corey doesn't know how he could work without his mother's help.
He remembered after his wife left being forced to take Calli on the road with him and changing diapers in the truck's bunks.
For now he has his aging mother's help.
But he worries.
Not just about protecting his daughter from the neighbourhood, but about what would happen to Calli if, one day, he had a bad accident.
"Am I going to make it home?"
* * *
Corey wasn't home on Thursday when I dropped by again.
But his mother, Betty, was there with Calli and Jessie the pup.
We chatted for a while about Jessie.
Then I asked about her Christmas list that seemed to be missing from the fridge.
Calli said she had decided she didn't want anything for Christmas.
Actually, there was one thing she wanted.
Something rare, precious and priceless to her.
"I only want to spend time with my daddy."
* * *
There was more to that letter Calli sent the Free Press.
A poem she wrote to "my little friend, my dog Jessie."
"I heard a little puppy crying in a garbage bin.
"My daddy picked her out cause she was scared and very thin.
"We took her home and bathed her then to our surprise she wasn't black but golden brown with big brown puppy eyes.
"We took her to the doctor and he said she's doing fine. How can people be so cruel
"Why can't they just be kind?"
The North End has another reputation, beyond murder, drugs and poverty.
Child neglect is the other scourge.
Yet, there is a street in the very black heart of gang violence where a single father works six days a week with the help of his aging mother. And still finds a way to teach his daughter values that should be the envy of any home in any neighbourhood.
What's the secret?
I'm not sure, but this much I can tell you.
This time nature and nurture have beaten environment.
And without even picking up that front-door Louisville Slugger.