Tammy Bekkering has one clear message when it comes to the homeless population she volunteers her time to help in Steinbach as part of Steinbach Community Outreach.
"You haven’t walked in their footsteps, and you haven’t lived the life they lived and you haven’t had the childhood they’ve had, and you haven’t had the emotional trauma they’ve had," she said. "Be sympathetic and be compassionate towards them because you don’t know their story. It could have been you."
More at ease talking about her volunteer work then herself, Bekkering was one of 150 Manitobans honoured with the Honour 150 award. Presented by Canada Life, the award recognizes outstanding people who make a difference in their communities.
Bekkering has done that, with her work at Steinbach Community Outreach.
And while she’s given countless hours to help homeless people have long-term, safe and stable living conditions, she noted she’s only one of a team of people who do the same thing.
For Bekkering the true award is knowing she’s making a difference in someone’s life. She said she was not expecting to be nominated and receive the award. "I was totally surprised," she said. "I’m not used to the attention."
Getting involved in volunteering was an intentional act for both Tammy and her husband when they moved to Steinbach from Winnipeg 10 years ago.
"We decided we had to get involved in the community to know the community and feel a part of it," she said.
Answering a call for house parents for the local homeless shelter, Today House, proved to be the beginning of what has turned into a labour of love.
After Today House changed the volunteer to a permanent position, Bekkering said she approached SCO Executive Director Irene Kroeker to see if she could help in other areas. That led to the work she does now, something that still surprises her as she thinks about how her life has changed. "I never would have seen myself doing this years before," she said.
As she navigates the work that must be done with each new client, Bekkering said one thing became obvious. "They could be us," she said. "If my story was any different growing up, it could be me out there."
Bekkering is more than just a resource for people in need. She becomes a very willing part of many of her clients’ lives.
She recalls a man she met who was homeless and struggling, living in his truck. She worked with him, got him in a stable environment, urged him to ask for his job back at a local company (something he did), and then took an unusual step.
Within a year of their meeting, she and her husband decided to buy a house, asking him if he’d like to rent. But this was much more than a typical landlord/renter relationship.
"We took him with us to look at all the houses and then together we picked one and we bought it. He’s still renting from us now," she said.
The man is a family friend, comes over for barbecues, and hosts them at his place as well. Since his life has stabilized, Bekkering said he has been giving back at SCO, helping with tasks that need doing.
"He’s so willing and anxious to give back to outreach because it’s changed his life, he says."
Other relationships have been formed as well. Tammy and her husband are godparents to a child born by a single mother who also received help through outreach.
Bekkering said she helps with basic human needs that go beyond the physical realm.
"Most of them are just looking for love and acceptance and friendship and just want to feel like they’re loved by somebody and so that’s what I feel like I can do," she said. "I feel like I can make them a friend, and make them feel like they’re important and that they matter."
"It kind of feels like they all turn into my kids," she added.
Bekkering has been told in the past she does a little too much sometimes, and people have asked her if she’s afraid she’s being taken advantage of. And while not all clients end up remaining stable and wouldn’t be considered "success stories", she said that doesn’t dissuade her from continuing to help. In fact, she added, even if she only has a lasting impact on one out of 10 people she helped, it’s worth every minute.
Bekkering said her volunteer work is incredibly rewarding, and urged others to find their passion.
"Find something that you’re passionate about and look into how you can help," she said. "It can be the smallest thing."