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Connecting with the marginalized

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Downtown drop-in centre making a difference

Cathy Dobson

Gwen Stephenson describes a recent chance meeting between two homeless men, an older one named Alex who regularly attends downtown’s Nightlight drop-in centre, and a younger man who was feeling like there was no reason to go on living.

“Alex invited this young man to Nightlight and he came and spent most of the evening there,” said Stephenson. She and her husband Murray are executive directors at the centre.

“While he was there, he met another young man who invited him to River City Vineyard to find a bed for the night,” she said.

Discovering people who cared and could help seemed to make a difference. The man that Alex had met on the street told him, “You saved my life tonight. I was planning to go down to the bridge. You saved my life,” Stephenson related.

It can be intense working with the marginalized in Sarnia, she said. “Sometimes it can be draining, but we love it.”

Gwen and Murray Stephenson have been managing the drop-in centre at 181 Christina St. North since it opened about 18 month ago.

Three times a week on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the drop-in is open to anyone who wants a coffee, a snack, a game of checkers or some cards.

Murray Stephenson said about 30 to 35 people are there each time, many dealing with extreme poverty, mental illness, and loneliness.

A growing number are experiencing homelessness.

“Our purpose is to create a safe place for meaningful relationships,” he said. “We’re building a community. That’s the bottom line.”

Aside from friendship, Nightlight volunteers try to offer practical help, sometimes providing first aid, sometimes making referrals to local agencies and shelters.

“We’ve served about 10,000 cups of coffee since we opened,” Murray said. 

Alex rarely misses. He has depended on local shelters for about three years, including the transitional housing at The Lodge operated by the Inn of the Good Shepherd where a support worker helped him with life skills and accountability.

About a month ago, he was chosen from a long waiting list to move into an apartment owned by Lambton County Social Services.

Alex’s success in getting off the streets and into a home of his own is encouraging for both him and the people who have helped him, Murray said.

Affordable housing and support services for people who struggle with addiction, are in short supply in Sarnia-Lambton, he added.

Nightlight is a faith-based Christian service supported by about 10 local churches. More volunteers and donations are always welcome.

The centre is trying to do its part to give hundreds who are either precariously housed or not housed at all, a chance to feel part of a community, Murray said.

The Stephensons were guest speakers at the Sarnia-Lambton Golden K Kiwanis Club at the Lochiel Kiwanis Centre Tuesday. 

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