Dear Ellen…

You don’t know me (yet), but I was one of the thousands of people in the room laughing with you, crying because it’s you, and cheering at almost everything you said when you were in Calgary, AB this past weekend. I know you likely won’t actually see this, but I feel putting it out there into the universe can’t hurt.

Being able to see you and go to your show was a dream of mine. A couple of weeks prior to the show, my entire family (there’s a lot of us. Like, almost-need-to-rent-a-hall-for-family-get-together’s, a lot) , my husband and members of his family, surprised me with a beautiful hand-made card and two tickets for your Calgary show. I was shocked. Excited. And so incredibly happy.

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This is just after I received the tickets. I was overwhelmed with so much love.

July 25, 2018 will mark 25 years since the day my life changed forever. I was only nine years old and in a propane explosion on July 25, 1993. With 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body, I was forced to live the rest of my life with scars. To celebrate my 25 year anniversary this year, I had decided to go to LA at some point this year and try my luck with getting tickets to your show. Although I still plan to do that, those who gave me the tickets to your Calgary appearance knew that would be just as amazing. They all made that dream come true for me. I will be forever grateful to each and every single one of them.

So you’d think with so many amazing people in my life I’d have a tough time choosing who to bring with me to the show. As much as I wanted to take each and every one of them, plus some others, it was a no brainer for me who I was going take. 25 years ago this summer my mom’s worst nightmare came true when the cabin I was in exploded. From the day she first became a mom (eventually there would be 7 of us kids in total), my mom’s first fear came to her – she never wanted any of her kids to get burned. She witnessed the horrible physical and emotional pain a burn survivor can go through when she was just a kid. Kids she grew up with next door were burned when someone threw a fire cracker into their tent. It scarred her in a different way, for life. I’m a mom now to three amazing kids, and I ache when they stub their toe. Despite her heart breaking, she stayed with me in the hospital. Her and my dad were by my side for every tear, every painful procedure, every laugh. Not once did I see my mom cry or show any signs of weakness. Years later when I became a mom and felt what unconditional love truly was, I asked her how she stayed so strong while I was healing. She looked at me and said, “Joy, you didn’t see me in my room before I went to bed”. That broke my heart. Of course, the explosion was 100% an accident. But that didn’t stop me from hurting for what my mom went through. And not just my mom – my entire family.  Their lives changed forever on July 25, 1993 as well. But that’s for a whole other blog – coming July 2018. I knew that my mom was the one who needed to be by my side when my dream of seeing you live came true.

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My mom brushing my hair just before the surgery to graft my face – the doctors had to shave my head to take skin from my scalp for that grafting

So finally the day came. I dropped my kids off at my sisters, picked my mom up and we were off to Calgary. Part of me was still thinking that maybe this was all still a dream. I couldn’t actually be going to see Ellen DeGeneres, was I??

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My kids all pitched in and made a sign for me to bring to the show.

Now, anyone who knows me, knows I’m a crier. So it’s no surprise to them that I cried a few times that night. I wish I could say that the first tear I shed that evening was when you came out on stage. But that wouldn’t be true. Although you brought on the tears a few times with certain things you said, the first set of tears came during the last song that the Tenors sang just before you came out. I can’t remember what the song was called, but it was all about dreams. Believing in your dreams. It was beautiful – because I’m a HUGE believer in my dreams and working to making them come true.

So to the point of this blog/letter to you – I wanted to thank you. First, for coming to Canada and so close to my hometown. Considering it was your only Canadian show, I feel so incredibly lucky that I was able to go.  Second, thank you for being you. From the second you walked out on stage with a hockey stick in hand in tribute to the Humboldt Broncos and kissed it before you put it down, it was obvious to everyone in that stadium that you really do care about everyone, even those you’ve never met.

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Photo credit: Calgary Herald

There wasn’t a second of the show I didn’t enjoy. It was easily one of the best nights of my life, and I was so happy to have shared it with my mom. My only regret – not bringing a pen and paper. With almost everything you said that night, I was inspired even more to just keep chasing my dream (aka just keep swimming).  You are my inspiration.

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I only took two photos while you were being interviewed. I was too busy taking mental notes

So Ellen, I will see you later this year at some point. I’m going to let myself be greedy and see you twice in one year; I will still be planning a trip to LA to come see your talk show. It’s my gift to myself for surviving 25 years ago and living positively every day since that explosion, despite all the challenges I’ve faced having to live a “scarred” but beautiful life.

Me in calgary

 

 

Trauma Side Effects Stick Around – But You Can Control Them

I originally wrote this as a Facebook status on my personal page – because the anniversary date of my accident is coming up and I’ve got all the feels. Not the good kind either. I honestly don’t have a name for them, but they’re there every year around this time. I decided to turn that post into a blog because I KNOW I’m not alone in this and I want others to also know they’re not alone.

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Did you know, that when someone goes thru a traumatic event at some point in their lives, when the “anniversary” date of said traumatic event creeps up each year, it is a very emotional time for the survivor? No matter how well someone is doing (or seems to be doing), no matter how much time has passed since the trauma, no matter what…the date stares at them just as hard as they stare at it.

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For me, every time I flip my calendar to July…the 25th always seems to just pop out. Every time I even glance at the calendar all I see is 25. And yet I’m SO OK with my accident. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Don’t really wanna go thru it again but I wouldn’t change it either. It was traumatic. I suffered for YEARS. It was HARD to learn to be OK.

But no matter how many scars I give a nickname to, no matter how many jokes I make about the explosion, I have a hard time giving a name to the feelings I feel every year as the time to flip the calendar to July creeps up on me. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to cure this. It sucks but I also think it’s important. Important to remember that even though I survived a propane explosion, I’m not invincible. To remember that with all the pain, of which I will never forget, there has been so much good since the second I lit that lighter. To remember that if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I allow myself one day a year, only if I feel it’s needed, to cry. To grieve for that 9 year old girl. To grieve for my family and all they went thru. Usually that day is July 25. But come July 26, I’m back. Back to living the life I love so much.

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I truly wish that everyone who has experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives also can learn to not let it control them. That you learn to allow yourself one day, perhaps the “anniversary” date to have the emotions surrounding the trauma. But only one day. If you give yourself more than that, you’re going to find yourself in a hole that will be hard to climb out of. And you’ve already gone thru hell. You’ve already climbed that hole – don’t go in it again. Instead, look down into it and then look up, hold your head high and be proud. You survived.

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Why Mother’s Day and I are in a complicated relationship…

Ahh, Mother’s Day. What a day. Some people really relish in the day and get spoiled. Others are aching extra hard today because their mom is either passed on or not part of their life for various reasons. Some feel like it’s just another “hallmark holiday”.  I have three amazing children and an incredible mom who is very much a part of my life. So why the complicated relationship? Well, let me tell you.

NEWS FLASH!!! Being a mom is hard. Heart breaking. Stressful. Complicated. Confusing. Did I say hard?

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The Single Mom Life

I had my first child when I was 20. She wasn’t planned at all. I was born in a Catholic home and we were raised to believe that you don’t have sex, therefore children, until you’re married. Well, I was the first (and so far only) child of my parent’s kids (they have seven) who got pregnant out of wed-lock. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the man I got pregnant with was not a good man. I won’t go into those details but lets just say my entire family knew he was no good for me, let alone a child too. Therefore, it wasn’t a happy pregnancy. Full of guilt. So much guilt. Full of sadness. And so much fear. There wasn’t any baby bump photos. There wasn’t any comparing my fetus size to a fruit each month. Although this pregnancy wasn’t planned, and this child was going to be born into an unhealthy relationship, I still wanted her. Abortion was never an option. Neither was adoption. She was meant to be mine. That was 13 years ago. And it’s been a hard 13 years. When my oldest was born, I left her “dad” when she was only three months old. Once I had another life to take care of, I saw what everyone else saw – he wasn’t just no good for me – he wasn’t good for her either. He wasn’t going to help give her the best life she deserved. So, I choose to be a single parent. Since the day I left, my ex proved that I made the right choice.

me and ciara

I was a single mom for 7 years. Just me and Ciara. I had to deal with all the challenges that come with parenthood by myself. My ex was not supportive in any way. But I made sure she felt loved. Every day. Even on the bad days when I had no idea what I was doing. I know I did good. How? She tells me. She loves her life now, but she mentions sometimes how she misses the days when it was just her and I. We did everything together. I remember booking her first day of kindergarten off work so I could just sit and cry after dropping her off. How did my baby grow up so fast? Don’t even get me started on how she’s almost done grade 7 already…

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I didn’t feel like I was a good mom. I made mistakes. Many. Too many. I doubted everything I did. And although I’ve now given her the family she so badly deserves, I still feel like I haven’t done good enough. She deserves the world. All my kids do. My husband legally adopted her. Her “real dad” is more of a distant uncle to her. My husband, her REAL DAD, shows her every day what a dad is supposed to be like. But some days, I still worry that I haven’t done enough for her.

 

Step-mom to a child with special needs

When I met my husband, he was a single dad to a 1 year old boy. He had his son most of the time. His mom was in and out. And now, she’s mostly out. He lives with us full-time and sees his real mom a couple times a year. I treat Paxton no different than if I gave birth to him myself. I’ve been in his life since he was one, and I’ve been his mom since he was three. I don’t feel like I’m enough for him. Although his real mom isn’t really around, I see the pain he feels everyday, missing her. I know he loves me. He calls me mom. He respects me as his mom. But I’m not his real mom. He aches for her all the time. That makes me ache for a few reasons: 1. He’s hurting. Which in turn makes me hurt for him. 2. I know I’ll never have that motherly bond with him that most moms get when they carry their child in their womb for nine months. 3. I know that no matter what I do, I’ll never be his “real” mom, even though I consider him my real son.

me and pax

I don’t try and “compete” with his birth mom. I know I’ll never replace her, and I don’t want to. I know he loves me like a mom. But I so badly just want his pain to end. My son, has had a rough life…and he’s only nine. When he was five, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Opposition Defiant Disorder (ODD). I knew when he was three that something wasn’t quite right. He struggled daily. He would have meltdowns that would last for HOURS. During these meltdowns, he’d get almost like a super-human strength. He’d hurt anyone who was in the line of fire. And it seemed he didn’t care who he hurt or how badly. But he did care eventually. He has the biggest heart of any little boy I know – and when he lets that show, he is so loving. He just didn’t know how to handle what was going on in his brain. He still doesn’t. Maybe he never will. He’s scared, lonely and in pain every day. I hold him when he’s crying. I try and be as patient as I can be when he’s having a melt down. But I fail at that too.  Having a child with ADHD and ODD is HARD. Challenging. Exhausting. That combined with not being his real mom, makes parenting him extra hard. Extra heart breaking when he has bad days. More tears flow from my eyes and heart for him than I ever imagined possible. I just want him to be happy. To feel loved. And even though I do everything I can to make him feel this way, sometimes I really feel like I’m not doing enough. His heart has been broken since he was a baby. And I’m doing everything I can to mend it for him.

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Having a child in the NICU

My husband and I got married in 2012. My daughter and his son (now they’re both OURS) were our flower girl and ring bearer. It was a perfect day. Immediately after our honeymoon, we started trying for one together. We both wanted to have a child “the proper way”. A child that was planned. We finally got pregnant in 2014. We were overjoyed. It was a rough pregnancy though. I had gestational diabetes and everything swelled up and hurt. It was a long nine months. I was so happy to be having this child with my husband; but I felt like I was already letting my unborn child down – although I did everything to take care of myself during the pregnancy, it wasn’t good enough. The odds seemed stacked up against me; and therefore our child.

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Our daughter came into the world exactly 10 years and 2 min to the day of our first daughter (just a little fun fact). I’d given birth once already so I knew how it goes. But when Sahtaysha came into the world, instead of them handing her directly to me like they had with Ciara, she was taken away from me. Because of my gestational diabetes, she was having a hard time breathing on her own. My husband and doctor tried to distract me but I could see the nurses putting a little oxygen mask on my baby. I kept asking what was wrong but no one would tell me. Soon, they took her out of the room. I didn’t even get to see her. My husband, torn with the decision to stay with me or go with our baby girl, was scared but being so strong for me. I told him to go with her. When it was decided that she needed to go to the NICU for treatment and to be monitored, he begged them to let me at least see her. They brought her into my room and I was able to finally lay my eyes on this new human who I already loved with every bone in my body. It would be another four hours before I’d be able to go up to the NICU and hold her.

me and sah

She spent five days in the NICU. Nothing compared to most of the babies in there. She was the healthiest baby in there at the time. One baby passed away in another pod during our stay. It was the longest five days of my life. I’d rather go through my accident all over again than have to sit in a NICU, feeling completely helpless and scared.

 

I want a crystal ball

I worry about my kids Every. Single. Day. All day long. I worry that they’re getting bullied at school, or that they might be the bully. I worry that they’ll fall into the wrong crowd and get into drugs, sex and alcohol. I worry that they won’t follow their dreams. I worry that they won’t have a dream at all. I worry that because of mistakes I’ve made being their parent, that I will have screwed them up. I worry that all the times I’ve yelled at them or screwed up some other way that I’ve imprinted a permanent scar on their hearts.

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If I could have a crystal ball, not to see the winning lotto numbers (that’d be cool too though) but just to see if they’re going to be OK when they’re adults. Will they be kind, caring, professional adults? Will they be good parents one day? Or will they be sitting on a therapist’s couch talking about me? I think I could relax a bit more, and just enjoy each day with them to the absolute fullest, without any guilt or fear, if I could know that they will be OK.

For so long I felt like I was a bad mom. Sometimes, I still do. I know that I am the best mom I can be and I am learning more every day on how to be better. They are loved, so much. I tell them that every day. And they tell me the same. Sometimes multiple times a day.

So why the love/hate relationship with Mother’s Day?

My husband and kids always go out of their way to make me feel like mom of the year on mother’s day. Although I have my doubts on if I’m doing everything I possibly can for my kids, the love they shower me with removes those doubts for a little while at least.

From the day I first became a mom over 13 years ago, I’ve always felt that it’s the most painful (and rewarding) experience a person can go thru. Sending my kids out into the world means I’m sending my heart out there too. It’s been trampled as they’ve experienced unpleasant things in life. And it’ll continue to be trampled and broken as they get older, until the day I die. There’s nothing I can do about it. I just love them so darn much. I suppose all I can do is be sure they know I’ll always be there to mend their hearts back together.

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Now to the hard part. Mother’s Day is impossible to forget. It’s plastered all over the tv, social media, and in every store for weeks leading up to the day. What about those who have lost their moms? What about those whose mom chooses to not be in their lives? What about those who so badly want to be a mom, but can’t for whatever reason? What about those who have lost a child or children? What does Mother’s Day mean to them? I ache for these people.

I lost one child, before I even knew I was pregnant. I didn’t really grieve as most do when they miscarry – I was sad of course, but I didn’t even know I was pregnant so I didn’t bond or fall in love with the child who died. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it is to lose a child in any stage – whether it’s before they are born or after. Whether they pass on when they’re children or adults. The pain of losing a child is one I hope I never have to endure – but my heart still hurts for those who have. Especially on Mother’s Day.

So, the day after Mother’s Day, I’d like to say this to anyone who hurts on Mother’s Day for whatever reason – you are loved. Your pain is recognized. Your loss is recognized. Your loneliness is recognized. I wish for you, a crystal ball too. So you can see that you too will be OK. For whatever loss you are feeling every day but especially on Mother’s Day, I am so sorry. If I could give you all a hug, even though I may not know you, I would.

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Help Me Get Ellen’s Attention!! Please!

This summer, July 25, 2018 will mark 25 years of me being a burn survivor. For the past 10 years or so, I realized that I was burned for a reason – to help others. OK, my accident WAS an accident. A freak accident. I wasn’t supposed to get burned. No one is. I learned I couldn’t dwell in self misery and pity my whole life. Instead, I wear my scars with pride and hold my head up high. And with this being 25 years, I can’t help but feel like this is the year my dream will come true…

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I devote my life now to helping others, in many ways. However, I decided that I was going to do something for me this year to celebrate my 25 year burn anniversary. Out of everything I could do, I ultimately decided a couple years ago that I would go to LA at some point this year and try and get tickets to the Ellen show; my gift to myself.

I haven’t made it to LA…yet. The  year is just started. That’s not the point of this blog, or why I need you to help me get Ellen’s attention. Ellen is coming to Calgary (which is only 3.5 hours from  my home) this Saturday, April 21, 2018 for a moderated Q&A, “A Conversation With Ellen”. When I realized she was coming, I wanted to go so bad. But having three kids on a single income, it didn’t seem like it’d happen as there was not enough time to save money for the tickets. But then, at Easter, my entire family and members of my husband’s family presented me with a beautiful card and two tickets to see Ellen in Calgary this weekend. It was their gift to me for my burn anniversary later this year. I still can’t believe I’m going. I’M GOING TO SEE ELLEN!!!!! The woman who thrives on making dreams come true…I’m getting closer to how you can help me….closer to my dream coming true…I hope.

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On July 25, 1993 my mom’s worst nightmare came true when the cabin I was in exploded. Her 9 year old little girl was burned with 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of her body and I was scarred forever. For this reason, and also because she is my mom and the strongest woman I know, she will be the one sitting next to me this Saturday when we go see Ellen. I made her worst fear come true the day I got burned (obviously not on purpose) so I feel it’s only right that she’s there with me when my dream comes true. My mom hasn’t left my side in my 34 years on earth, and especially not in my 25 years as a burn survivor. She’s dried every tear and held me when she couldn’t end the pain. She’s cheered me on in every endeavor I’ve taken, and she too believes in my dream. She believes in me. My whole family does.

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My mom brushing my hair just before it was to be shaved off for my face graft

I’ve called and researched and asked – how does a moderated Q&A work? I’ve only ever been to concerts so I’m a newbie at this. How do we submit questions for Ellen to answer? Turns out, no one really knows. My mom and I will be sitting in the front row of section 219 (FYI Ellen) and I hope she’ll see my hand waving in the air. I’ll probably make a sign in hopes she’ll see that too. I will do everything (non crazy) to try and get Ellen to hear my question. Which is ultimately, to hear my dream.

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Easter was 3 weeks ago – and I haven’t stopped thinking about what question I’d like to ask Ellen. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I need to make it count. It needs to be perfect. I have ONE chance. My chance could slip away…but not if I can help it. I’m known to be a dreamer, and a doer. If I want something bad enough, I’ll work my butt off to make it happen. So that brings me to the point of this blog and why I need YOU to help me get Ellen’s attention. All I need you to do, is share this blog. You never know if she or someone she knows will see it! The internet is a wonderful creation – and has been the gateway to making dreams come true. I have a dream – a big one. A good one. A beautiful one. A dream I’ve been working on and towards for years – a dream that answers the question I yearned to know the answer to, “why did I get burned?”.

Everything is lining up perfectly in my dream – well, almost perfectly. It hasn’t come true, yet. But I truly believe that if Ellen could hear it, she’d believe in it as much as I do – it’s that good. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll help me make my dream come true.

This world is in need of a lot more love, acceptance and understanding. For too long, I felt alone as a burn survivor. Like no one understood what I was going thru – not even other burn survivors. I felt scared, sad, angry. I would pray asking God, “why? Why me?” for so long. Well, he finally showed me why. I was burned because he knew I could handle it – OK wait. Not quite. I don’t believe God planned for me to get burned. But it did happen, so he helped me thru it and he is now answering my question as to why –  I want to help others who have been thru a traumatic experience at some point in their lives. I want to help people like me, so they too can not feel alone in their pain. Not just burn survivors. Anyone who has an incredible story of survival.  I want to help others to rise above their traumatic experience and live their life holding their heads high with pride for what they went thru – and survived. Like I did. I don’t cover or hide my scars. I never have. I’m proud of them. They tell my story.

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Me in the hospital, just over a week after my accident.

My dream is to help others in a new way. A big way. I’ve worked so hard on this dream, I believe in it, and I truly believe it will happen one day. Because it’s exactly what the world needs. It may not be what I was born for, but I truly believe it was what I was burned for. My dream is too big for a simple blog or for me to read to her on Saturday if I’m given the opportunity; but I will have it printed out and ready to hand to Ellen for her to read when she has time. So, my question for Ellen is this:

Ellen, can I hand my dream to you? I’m not a musician or actress – but handing out audition tapes or head shots is how so many people make their dreams come true. So I figured that this isn’t really any different – I have my dream and the background with me today – can I give it to you? All I need is someone to believe in it as much as I do, and I think you could be that person. You resemble love, acceptance and you have proven that dreams do come true. If you could read it in your own time, that alone is a dream come true.

25 years

 

Introducing the last member of the new Humans of Edmonton Experience team – the man who started it all: Jerry

Introducing the last member of our team: Jerry

As a kid there are few defining moments in your life that can alter the course of your existence. Mine was when my father abandoned us. I will never forget it. He left when I was 8 years old and to be honest, good riddance but that still doesn’t make it any better. He terrorized my mother and caused her such heartache. The WIN House was a place we called home for awhile.

After he left, my mother, grandmother and myself had to learn to fend for ourselves. I was so angry with my father for leaving and often blamed my mother. A boy should have his father and he abandoned us. I didn’t understand any of it. I had to grow up quickly because my mother spoke very little English and I had to become the man of the house and help her. I learned how to do the banking, pay bills, cook, clean, and grocery shop.

Now being raised by a single mom, we often used the services that were offered. We survived on social assistance, the food bank and the generosity of friends. I suddenly was shifted into a world where I got used to what hungry felt like.

Growing up wasn’t easy, I was angry and wasn’t an easy kid to deal with and my mother didn’t know how to help me. I suddenly had no rules and more freedom than I knew what to do with.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

When I was 12 years old I would sneak out at night and roam the streets. I ended up talking to the ladies of the night while they were waiting for their next customer with tears in their eyes. I would bring snacks and talk to the homeless, I was never afraid for some reason, just very curious about people and why they were in the situation they were in. I think this is why I can do what I do today. I would learn from people, their body language and facial expressions, how they wore masks and tried to be someone they never really were. This is where I started to learn compassion for the broken and lost souls of humanity.

During high school, one thing that distracted me from wrecking havoc on my life was the love of sports. I was really good at basketball and I loved it. Nothing would or could stop me from playing but I got in with the wrong crowd and things changed for me.

I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol and found myself creating a character to help with the anxiety and sadness I would feel most of the time. This character was fun and fearless and I found myself liking him more and more.

People wanted to be around me because I made them laugh, little did they know and I was more comfortable playing him than I was the real me. This led me to eventually be out of control and rely heavily on drugs and alcohol. For over a span of 10 years, drugs and alcohol was my main existence. My life was a huge contradiction. By day I was working with kids and adults with disabilities and by night I was partying like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t care, I loved the high and I wasn’t afraid. Eventually I realized I needed help because I was so out of control and the coming down from the high was excruciating, I lost everything.

I knew I needed help and couldn’t do it on my own so I admitted myself into rehab. I have to admit, I ended up going back a few different times because I would slip up and be right back where I started but I have to be honest with you, rehab taught me a lot about myself and I realized why I was doing what I was doing to myself. I also realized I was good at helping others and that started my journey to finding my purpose in life.

I picked up a camera and I can actually say photography saved my life. It gave me a purpose and a reason to do what I love and that is sitting down with the broken and forgotten humans that are so often passed by without a glance. The first time I took the first photo, I was hooked. I spent all my spare time practicing and learning about photography. I studied all the great photographers and knew I wanted to be one of them.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

It’s funny with all the photos I have taken and I have taken thousands, you will never get to see my best photos because I have never taken them. More often than not when I sit down with someone and ask them, “how are you today”, they can look at me with such pain in their eyes that it takes my breath away but I understand it. I sit down and I listen. I have no desire to take those photos, because not all pain needs to be documented.

I feel more comfortable with the souls of the street than I do with any other type of people. They are my people and I feel at home with them. They trust me now and know I have their best interest at heart. Through my photography, I am raising awareness for the way they live and creating change in the hearts of the people who follow my work.

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Photo: Jerry

At times I receive messages from family members of someone I have posted and they are so thankful their father is alive because they haven’t seen them in 5 years or someone I have posted has passed away and they message me asking if they could use my photo for the funeral.

I am not driven by wealth or material possessions. I’ve been there, done that and it didn’t do anything for me, it actually complicated my life so much that I never want to go back to that lifestyle again. I am a simple man with simple needs and live an hour out of the city to get away from the hustle and bustle. For 10 years I didn’t have access to the Internet or even have a cell phone.

One day, a friend of mine told me I should check out Humans of New York and out of curiosity I did. I realized, that is exactly what I have been doing all along and could share my photos with other people in the same way so I created Humans of Edmonton Experience and the rest as they say, is history.

With all of this being said, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to find myself, to find my purpose in life. I have to admit, I used to look back on my life and wonder what if things were different, I could’ve been this or I should have been that but then I shake my head and realize, this is exactly who I am supposed to be.

Thank you for joining me on this incredible ride.

The Team
Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

#ScarredNotBroken #IheartEdmonton #HumansofEdmontonExperience #bekindtooneanother

Introducing the third team member of the new Humans of Edmonton Experience…Neil

Introducing to the team: Neil Kennedy…

Neil
Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

I learned the true meaning of hard work at a very young age. My folks made sure we had food on the table, a roof over our heads but more importantly a loving family.

Living on the farm we learned the true meaning of hard work. We were part of a small community and we all contributed to each other’s livelihood. We all trusted each other even when strangers came around, they were treated like family. But I soon learnt that trusting someone doesn’t mean they are trustworthy.

There was a stranger who would frequently visit the farm. He was always kind to the kids, giving out treats and making us laugh but I learned later he was a monster. He sexually abused me and stole my innocence. I knew I should tell my mom, but I didn’t want to burden her because she was going through hell of her own. My dad was killed in a hunting accident and she lost the love of her life. That man finally stopped coming around. I don’t know what ended up happening to him but growing up I always hoped to see him again one day to settle the score.

My whole family had to relocate to Edmonton. We had no money for a home of our own so we relied on the generosity of family and friends. We all ended up going our separate ways, just trying to survive the best we could.

We were all broken kids, we lost our home, our dad, we just lost all hope. I saw my sister take her last breath. I was losing everyone that I loved. I had so much anger inside of me and no way of understanding how to deal with all of the pain, I turned it into learning how to live on the streets. I turned to drugs and alcohol because I didn’t want to feel anymore. I was homeless for years and my new home was the inner city and my new family were it’s people. I came to rely on the Bissell Centre and the The Mustard Seed for my basic needs like food, clothing and a hot cup of coffee.

One day while I was at the The Mustard Seed centre, I thought, I could help out. What my parents taught me still stayed with me and I wanted to give back to the organization that was there for me. I asked the staff if I could volunteer and that is the day my life started to take a turn. It felt good to give back, it felt good to have a purpose and help those who became my family. I cleaned the tables and did whatever was needed. I volunteered at Bissell Centre centre as well and as much as I could and realized helping gave me back purpose and a direction that has carried me through to this day. I ended up being hired on at the Bissell centre and have volunteered and worked there for over 20 years.

I have moved on from there and now I dedicate my time and my life in helping out in the inner city and those who are less fortunate. They are my family and I work to ensure we have what we need everyday.

To the Humans of Edmonton Experience, I bring over 40 years of experience in the inner city. I will be doing inner city walks to show people what it’s like to live on the streets and explain what the different agencies in the city do to help with homelessness. One of the biggest reasons I want to give back is because I owe it to myself to be kind to all those have help me and to show my son and daughter that I have not seen in years what I have become.

My strength is my compassion and to always strive to make a difference in this world. I am very proud of where I have come from to where I am now, life couldn’t have been a lot different.

I received the Diamond Jubilee Award from the Queen for recognition for volunteering in my country, a plaque from the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in Recognition of Human Rights, the Human Rights Award nominated by Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta’s Promise Award for my commitment to youth and children, Outstanding Service of an Individual from the Bissell Centre, 2006 Volunteer of the year from the Bissell Centre and the Commitment to Volunteerism.

When I was born I had no clothing and no pockets and that’s the way I’m going out.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

#Scarrednotbroken #IheartEdmonton #humansofedmontonexperience

Introducing the second team member of the new Humans Of Edmonton Experience…yours truly!

Introducing next on the team… Joy

My name is Joy Zylstra. I was born and raised in Camrose, AB by two loving parents. I am the middle child, of seven kids. Five sisters and one lucky brother. My childhood was not a normal one, to say the very least.
When I was nine years old my family and I were visiting with my aunt and uncle at their cabin in Boston Bar, B.C. Two of my older sisters and I were staying in the guest cabin while everyone else slept in the main cabin.

On Sunday July 25, 1993 everyone was sitting outside the main cabin, chatting and relaxing. But I was bored. I went to the guest cabin where all my stuff was to play with my Barbie’s. To this day, I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I walked to the cabin. We had just had lunch, so I knew I wasn’t hungry. So, I ignored it. Now, looking back, I firmly believe that it was God telling me to turn around; to not go into that cabin.

I walked into the cabin anyway and I smelled something strange. I looked around and saw that the propane stove was on, but nothing was cooking. Thinking nothing of it, I turned the burner off. The cabin didn’t have any electricity, so the only source of light was a candle. I grabbed the lighter to light the candle so I could find my toys. The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks all over the floor. I screamed.

Mess inside after explosion
The cabin after the explosion

My family had all heard the explosion. But at first, they didn’t know what it was. They thought a semi truck had fallen off the mountain. But then they heard my screams coming from the guest cabin. My uncle and dad came running to me.
Long story short, the cabin was filled with propane. Just the spark from the lighter caused it to explode. The logs lifted and came back down, trapping my sister’s sleeping bag in-between; the roof lifted and came back down sideways; shelves fell; and I was burned. Badly.

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My sister’s sleeping bag was blown in between the separated logs and trapped when the logs came back down.

After the doctors realized I was going to survive, they told my parents that I suffered from 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. This meant I would have skin grafting which would result in scars, to almost half my body – for the rest of the life. I was in a lot of pain while in the hospital. But nothing could prepare me for the pain I would have being forced to live life looking like a “freak” and “monster”.
I was only 9 years old. In the hospital, I was determined to remain positive, happy – I would tell jokes often. But I had no idea what was coming. When I returned to school just 5 weeks after the explosion, all my old friends (except one) wouldn’t come near me. I don’t blame them – we were just kids. And I looked awful. Bloody, purple skin; garments on my torso, hands and legs; a mask on my face and a bald head.
Teenage years were the hardest. While all my friends were starting to get boyfriends, I realized quickly that no guy wanted to date me. I was ugly. One guy even told me that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because of my scars. I was severely depressed. Depression would follow me for the rest of my life. At 16 I attempted suicide three times. I would cry myself to sleep every night praying to God to take my scars away. I just wanted to be normal. Pretty.

Smiling...before face graft
Me just before getting my face grafted

As a teenager and young adult, I thought the only way to numb the pain was with drugs, alcohol and sex. I thought if I slept with a guy then he could eventually learn to love me, scars and all. Drugs and alcohol didn’t numb the pain, it made it worse. I was so lost. So scared. So sad.
Then, I became a mom at the age of 20. I’ll never forget looking into my daughter’s eyes and refusing to let her feel about herself the way I felt about myself. The birth of my daughter was the start of my healing process.
I left her father as it was not a healthy relationship and embarked on the single mom life. I moved us to Edmonton where I put myself through college, got a good career with a big company and bought my daughter and I our first home. And while doing this, I would look in the mirror and tell myself that I was beautiful – scars and all. Eventually, it worked. But I was still depressed.

It was just my daughter and I for the first seven years of her life. I was so lonely, but now I had self worth. I knew I deserved a good man – but where was he? Most men still looked at my scars and wouldn’t even think about a relationship. I was about to give up on finding my soul mate, thought maybe the single mom life was for me. But then I met him. My husband. He tells me that the first thing he noticed about me when we first met was my smile. Not my scars. We married 5 years ago. He adopted my daughter and we now have three beautiful children together. But I was still depressed, I just didn’t know it (or maybe want to admit it).
For years I knew my accident happened for a reason, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started going to schools and giving burn awareness presentations to help avoid any one else going through what I went through. I volunteer at the same burn unit I was treated in almost 25 years ago to help those burn survivors know that they’re not alone – and that it can and will be ok eventually. The depression though, never left. I just buried it. It eventually creeped back up earlier this year, and this time I didn’t ignore it. I sought help with it and have accepted that it could be there for life, as long as I take care of it though, it won’t take over my life.

A year ago I started my own page, Scarred, Not Broken to showcase hope. I started interviewing other survivors of tragic and life challenging events. I want people who are going through a hard time to know that they’re not alone. Because that was the hardest part for me – although I was never physically alone, I felt so alone. Like no one knew what I was going through. I’m determined to help others, not just burn survivors – survivors of anything, know that they’re not alone. I dream of one day having my own talk show. One that has guests who share their story of survival and hope. Their stories deserve to be heard – and need to be heard by others who are going through something similar.

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Which brings me to why I am so excited, proud and humbled to have been asked to join Humans of Edmonton Experience. The four of us have such diverse backgrounds, which makes us the perfect team. I look forward to the lives we’re going to help, to the changes we’re going to make in the world, to the love and acceptance we’re going to help spread. Being part of this team is the beginning of my dream coming true.

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#Scarrednotbroken #IHeartEdmonton #HumansofEdmontonExperience
#bekindtooneanother

Introducing the First Team Member…Emil

Emil Tiedemann is an Edmonton-born and raised blogger, writer, and photographer who runs ‘I Heart Edmonton,’ an award-winning blog and social media outlet specializing in exposing all the awesomeness of his hometown. He also spent two years on the Board of Directors of the Edmonton PrideFestival Society and is the writer behind the book 101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton (2016).

Emil
Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

My Story:
I wholeheartedly believe life’s far more accessible and optimistic for the LGBTQ youth of today, especially in a country such as Canada. But even just a few decades ago, it was another story altogether. And that’s not to say that today’s LGBTQ youth don’t have their own issues and struggles as well, because that’s just not the case, but what I would have given for the chance to grow up gay in today’s social climate!

I am sure I would have “come out” far sooner than I did and that it would have been a clearer decision for me right from the beginning, and that perhaps most of the people who cared about me couldn’t have cared less about my sexuality. Let’s be honest, when I finally did come out – in my early 30s – I had it pretty good. Nobody disowned me or even used any derogatory language towards me (to me face, at least), and I felt free to let practically anyone know exactly who I was for the first time in my life.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

However, when I was growing up, my thoughts of coming out were grim and even ominous. I felt dread and fear about my future all the time. In my head my options were either to pretend my life away by living as a straight man the best I could, or just not living at all. I just couldn’t imagine – no matter how hard I tried – myself living as a gay man, living with another gay man. It was not plausible, and so I chose the former.

That’s until I met a guy, a straight guy, who didn’t even flinch when I answered “yes” to his question: “You’re gay, right?” It was the first time, in fact, that I had answered that question honestly, and it was like I had unleashed something deep inside me that had been dormant all these years. He didn’t care that I was gay, and I had a new outlook of what my future could be. Those feelings of dread were no longer there, replaced by optimism and even excitement.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

It was from there that I decided that I wanted to help others take on their own personal demons, to shed frustrations and fears, to open up ideas and find new paths to follow. Because my story isn’t just my story, it’s a shared narrative for folks all over the world, even right here in one of the most liberal and progressive nations on the planet. A place where being a gay, agnostic, Indigenous man is not just okay but even celebrated, and where these restrictive labels do not exclusively define the rest of my life and who I am. Hiding from one’s truths should never have to be an option, for anyone.

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Photo: Humans of Edmonton Experience

You can follow I heart Edmonton on twitter here and on Instagram here and be sure to subscribe to his blog and website here.

And be sure to follow the new Humans of Edmonton Experience Team on Facebook!

#LGBTQ #Iheartedmonton #humansofedmontonexperience #scarrednotbroken

Scarred, Not Broken Has Teamed Up

Just over a year ago, I started my Facebook page, Scarred, Not Broken. It grew into Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and this blog site. The reason I felt that I needed to start Scarred, Not Broken is because I once was a very broken soul. I felt so alone, scared, hurt. The worst of these was the feeling of being alone.

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For most of my life, I felt like no one understood what it was like to be a burn survivor…except other burn survivors. Scarred, Not Broken was intended to bring love, understanding and acceptance to any one who is or has struggled with a traumatic or life altering event.

I became so passionate about helping others. It’s all I can think about most days – how can I help more people?

When my friend Jerry, who created Humans of Edmonton Experience, reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to join a team of once lost and broken souls, to do exactly what I was trying to do on my own – I jumped at the opportunity. One person can help a lot of people if they really try – but just imagine how many people a team can help. This team is probably the best team there could ever be. We come from diverse backgrounds and struggles, but the one thing we have in common is we’ve all been judged and felt lonely in our darkest hour. Because of this, we’re the last ones to lay judgement – we know how it feels.

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“Each of the four of us has our own story and struggle. We are survivors of homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, discrimination, bullying, and poverty. We have been brought together to help bring awareness, acceptance and to give a voice to those that need to be heard.

Our mission is to feature real people with real stories that are raw, honest and inspiring by photographing, interviewing and sharing their personal experiences with care, compassion and acceptance.” – Humans of Edmonton Experience

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Being part of this team means so much to me – I’m  not alone in my mission to help those who struggle with acceptance and love. We’re in this together, and together we will change the world.

For those who do not follow on Facebook, the next four blog posts will be introducing the members of this team. I hope you’ll support and follow our journey in helping others. This is going to be life changing for so many people – and it’s going to be huge. You’ll want to be part of it, trust me.

You can follow Humans of Edmonton Experience on Facebook by clicking here.

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November 11: Why We Shouldn’t Remember…

November 11. We all know what today symbolizes. It’s been drilled into us since we were kids. Why do we remember today? “At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”. World War I ended. But why do we only remember today? Why don’t we remember every day? And not just World War I, but any and all wars in which those who sacrificed EVERYTHING to fight for our freedom, either died or walked away a different and scarred person. Or for those who are still fighting.

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Now don’t get me wrong – of course I understand why November 11 is so important. I understand why it’s so important to have a moment of silence at 11 am on November 11. I have yet to attend a Remembrance Day celebration in which I don’t tear up. I have not been a witness to war, thank God. But I do know how lucky I am. How lucky my family is. We are able to live the lives we have, enjoy the FREEDOM we have, thanks to veterans who fought for us.

My point is, we shouldn’t just remember today, on November 11. We should remember EVERY DAY. Every day you see a veteran, thank them. Hug them if you want. But at the very least give them a handshake. They made the ultimate sacrifice. For YOU. A complete stranger.

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My heart is filled with so much love, respect and gratitude for the men and women who have fought or are still fighting for us. I hate war. I wish we could all just get along. But that’s obviously wishful thinking. I can and will continue to pray for and wish for world peace. And when that happens, I will still always thank and respect our veterans. Those who passed away while serving, or from old age. Those who came home, not the same person that left.

Imagine what soldiers who serve in active duty see. We all know what PTSD means. It affects people because of various different traumas, but veterans, in my opinion, have it the worst. Having to shoot someone, seeing children die right before your eyes, seeing women and children raped and murdered, seeing your friend die from the enemy’s bullets. This doesn’t just go away when these soldiers come home. It stays with them. Forever. Every time they close their eyes, they’re brought back to the hell they witnessed.

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This is why we need to remember EVERYDAY. This is why we need to show love and respect to our veterans EVERYDAY. Not just on November 11. While we’re enjoying our freedom, they’re still suffering. They made the ultimate sacrifice, for us. Not only did they risk their lives (too many lost their lives) but they risked their mental health. And more than not suffer from PTSD. We need to take care of our veterans. Without them and their sacrifice, you wouldn’t be who you are today. The world would be a much different, scarier place. Thank a veteran today, tomorrow, every day you see one. If you know one, make sure they know that you are there for them. Take care of them. They are suffering and probably hiding it well. Don’t let them feel like they’re alone.

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I don’t know any other band that is so supportive of veterans than Five Finger Death Punch. Even if you’re not a fan of the band, I encourage you to watch the two music videos below. They are emotional. I can’t get through either of them without crying. And I’ve watched them a million times. This band shows more love and respect for veterans and it is simply beautiful. They employ veterans in their crew. At every concert, EVERY concert, they recognize the veterans that are in the crowd. They dedicate so much to them.

Wrong Side of Heaven – Five Finger Death Punch

Remember Everything – Five Finger Death Punch

This morning I dropped my oldest daughter off at Sea Cadets so she can attend a Remembrance Day celebration with her fellow cadets.  We listened to these songs on the drive. She teared up. She knows why she’s standing tall and proud this morning. She knows what today is about. She knows the sacrifice veterans have made for us. For her. Educate your children if you haven’t already. And remember – to ALWAYS remember the sacrifice made for you.

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.   Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae