The newest community project initiated by Ramona Johnson and her staff at the K’ómoks Band’s I-Hos Gallery reaches across the water to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — just in time for Thanksgiving.
The project came about through Johnson’s experiences and conversations with long-time Comox Valley residents, Jo and Mike Creedon.
As volunteers in Vancouver’s Eastside, the Creedons encountered a large urban neighbourhood characterized by extreme poverty, violence, drug addiction, sex trade issues, mental disabilities and homelessness.
Residents are often disenfranchised and marginalized people, and a disproportionate segment of the population is First Nations: a rate 10 times higher than the national average.
With the highest HIV rate in North America — mainly affecting women — the Downtown Eastside struggles with contributing issues such as slum landlords, gentrification and an ever-increasing homeless population.
After visiting a West Hastings community support facility, Johnson returned to the Comox Valley with new perspectives and a Thanksgiving project in mind. With a heart for healthy communities, awareness building and education, Johnson took the idea of an outreach initiative to her staff at I-Hos and then to the Creedons.
Johnson realized that bringing tangible, rather than monetary, support to a specific segment of the Eastside community would likely garner the best response. She based this on the successful initiative the gallery sponsored in the past to supply winter wear to the First Nations kindergarten.
The Creedons suggested Mary’s Place, an Eastside drop-in centre facilitated by Sister Marianne Rohrer that provides a safe place for vulnerable neighbourhood women.
“We don’t do counselling,” says Marianne. “Our doors open twice a week, and 35 to 40 women come: some for solitude, some for safety, some for the food and all of them mostly for the acceptance of unconditional love. We give and get a lot of hugs.”
The women who come to Mary’s Place change from week to week, month to month. “Some return every week, some show up sporadically. Some disappear,” Sr. Marianne commented, “But they all need some form of friendship, of connection and peace. We try to give them that. Often we receive more from these women than I feel we give.”
“The I-Hos Gallery’s initiative,” says Johnson, “is to reach out to the women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with arms filled with those much-needed essentials that Mary’s Place can’t provide.
“In consultation with the drop-in centre, we’re collecting women’s underwear (sizes medium, large and extra large), athletic socks, deodorant and shampoo. Our goal is to fill and refill the dropoff box for these items in the gallery and to deliver them by Oct. 14, Thanksgiving Day. It’s a time when we’re grateful for what we have and for what we can share.”
Donations for Mary’s Place are welcomed until Oct. 9. The gallery is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 11 to 5 Sundays.
The I-Hos Gallery is located on the original K’ómoks Village site between Courtenay and Comox on Comox Road. For further information, visit the gallery website at www.ihosgallery.com or phone 250-339-7702.