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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I’m not giving you any money. You’re just going to spend it on drugs or alcohol you dumb drunk.”
“Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. You’re just a lazy beggar.”
“Get off our streets. You’re a waste of skin you dumb welfare junkie.”
Imagine not having eaten in days. Imagine having slept on a cold concrete sidewalk with nothing but a pile of leaves for a pillow, bugs crawling all over you and rain or snow pouring on you. Imagine going weeks without a positive human contact experience. Without a smile from a stranger. Without a hug. Without any sense of compassion. Imagine being literally spit on when you ask a stranger for some change so you can buy a hot meal. Imagine strangers looking at you like you’re no better than the dirt on the bottom of their shoes. Imagine not owning a pair of shoes. Can’t imagine it? It’s hard, I know. It’s hard if you’ve never been there, walked a mile in those shoes. How about we go for a walk, right now, a virtual one. One where you’ll be wearing the shoes of a homeless person, in many cases, you’re lucky if you have a pair of socks to walk in, let alone shoes. If you are one of the people who has said the things (or something similar) above, to a homeless person or about a homeless person, then my hope is that by the end of this blog, those words will be turned into care and compassion. And understanding.
This morning you probably woke up when your alarm went off and even though you didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of your bed you crawled out anyway because life calls. You grudgingly walked to your kitchen to put on the coffee and then went to the bathroom to begin your morning ritual. You hopped in your nice hot shower, same as you do every morning, and you washed your hair and did everything else you normally take care of in the shower. After your shower you looked through your closet and tried to decide what to wear. But first you checked the weather app on your phone to see what will be appropriate to stay warm/cool throughout the day. After you dressed you went to make a cup of coffee; the smell of it wafting through the house is so delicious you couldn’t wait another second to get your hands around a mug. You sat down for a few minutes enjoying your coffee and the few minutes of silence in your house before everyone else woke up. You woke your kids up, told them what the weather is going to be like, so they knew how to dress, then they came to the kitchen and you fed them a full, hearty breakfast. While they ate their breakfast, you made their lunches for school. You opened your fridge and gave the kids options of what kind of fruit and vegetable they want. There were so many options.
After breakfast, the kids took a few minutes trying to decide what jacket and shoes would match their outfit of the day. You all walked out of your house, you set your alarm and got to your vehicle, which has been running to warm up so you and the kids could have a comfortable ride. With the kids safely at school, you headed off to work.
Does that sound like your morning? Give or take a couple kids or a couple steps? Here’s where this walk we’re on may go off from your usual daily path…
You get to work and your boss calls you into their office. When you get there, a representative from the Human Resources department is there as well. This can’t be good. They explain to you that they just don’t have a position for you anymore. They have no choice but to let you go. All of a sudden, without any warning, you don’t have a job.
It doesn’t immediately hit you how big of a deal this is. You go through many emotions. Anger, sadness, confusion. You were a hard worker, you hardly ever called in sick, you didn’t take extra long lunch breaks. You worked hard. Why you? Why did this happen to you?
Soon, reality hits. You no longer have an income. Your partner doesn’t make enough money to sustain the house on their own. Worse, your partner’s hours got cut back, or they also lost their job. Or were you the sole income earner of your house? A single parent, or single person taking care of yourself. How are you going to do that now? The economy isn’t good. No one seems to be hiring.
Months pass. Unemployment Insurance gets cut back even more than the little you’re already getting. It’s not enough. Not enough to pay the rent/mortgage, bills, food. Before you know it, you’re hitting up the food bank to help put food on your table. But the bills keep piling up. You have to move. But where? You can’t afford the rent anywhere with no job and a bank won’t even look at you for a mortgage with no job. Soon, you find yourself knocking on the door of one of the shelters in the city. Your kids are put in foster care until you get back on your feet. But what if everything that just happened to you is too much to deal with. You have a mental breakdown. You turn to alcohol or drugs to mend the pain that keeps growing. Soon you find yourself somewhere you never imagined you’d ever be – tonight you had to sleep on the cold concrete sidewalk with nothing but a pile of leaves for a pillow, bugs crawling all over you and rain or snow pouring on you.
You still don’t think this could happen to you, right? What if I told you that this is exactly how a good number of Edmonton’s homeless population became homeless? Remember the Fort McMurray fire a couple years ago? So many people’s homes burned to the ground. Most had insurance that would eventually pay for them to have a new house built, and in the meantime they stayed with friends or family. Would you believe me if I told you that there were some people whose house burned down and they didn’t have insurance, or family to turn to so they are now spending another winter on the streets.
I’ve heard so many people, too many, ask of a homeless person “why don’t they just go get a job?”. Think about that for a second. Some of our homeless are wearing the same set of clothes for weeks or even years on end. Never washed. Some of our homeless don’t even remember the last time they had the luxury of even a cold shower, let alone a hot one. Their hair could be crawling with lice. Some, yes, some, are struggling with addiction. But not all. Some are just struggling to survive. Some don’t have bank accounts to receive pay from a job. And all of them, don’t have an address to list on the job application. So for those of you who wonder why the homeless don’t just “go and get a job”, answer me this: would you hire someone who hasn’t showered, is wearing dirty clothes, probably stinks due to no access to a shower, and who has no bank account or stable address? If you answer yes, please contact me ASAP – I have a lot of people who I’d like you to offer a job to. If you answer no, please show some compassion and understanding the next time you see a homeless person. You don’t have to give them money if you don’t want to. You could buy them a coffee or hot chocolate. Give them the apple left over from your lunch. But at the very least, the one thing you could give them that would mean the world to them and doesn’t cost you a thing is – a smile. Respect. Compassion.
A lot of people think that most people who live on the streets are aboriginals, drunks and/or drug addicts. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you took the time to talk to some of our homeless people, which I have done, you’d learn that a lot of the homeless aboriginals are still struggling from what happened to them at the Residential Schools (look it up if you haven’t heard about those). They weren’t offered any help to learn to heal from the abuse they endured. They don’t know how to deal with it.
Some of our homeless population are kids who fled from abusive parents. Yup, you read that right. Kids. Living on the streets. Kids who were being abused or rejected by their own family. Kids who didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
Others are people who got into an accident and didn’t have insurance or coverage to help take care of their bills while they healed. Bills piled up. Collectors started calling. Eventually the bank took their home back. Notice how banks and bill collectors don’t really care what’s going on in your life? They have a business to run too – they just want their money. A lot of people who live on the streets are people who couldn’t stop falling behind while healing from an injury that prevented them from working.
There’s one homeless man who I met a couple years ago. He’s around the same age as me. He’s from the east. He had a wife and two kids. Losing his job hit him hard. He was the bread winner. It was his job to take care of his family. He fell into a depression. He ended up using some drugs to ease the pain. It worked, temporarily. Soon, he was addicted. And still depressed. His wife left him and took the kids. He ended up living on the streets. When I met him, his fingers were black. Frost bite from sleeping on the streets in our bitter cold winters. He’s still addicted to drugs. Still homeless. Still depressed. He misses his wife. He’s aching to see his kids. But he feels stuck. He’s afraid he’ll die on the streets. The sad reality is, he probably will.
I’ve met many homeless people over the years. I have yet to meet one who has chosen to be homeless. Many choose to stay living on the streets because they’ve been there so long that it’s their comfort zone. They don’t want the responsibility of paying bills. They’re content. But they didn’t initially choose to be there. And most of our homeless population would give anything to be in your shoes right now. I hope this walk in someone else’s shoes has helped to open your eyes if they were closed to this epidemic. I hope that you’ll find a way to help those less fortunate than you. Even if it is just a smile. A smile will last a lifetime. At the very least, we need to change the way the general population looks at and treats our homeless population. They’re people too. They deserve respect. They deserve love. They deserve to be treated like a human.
My daughter’s school is in the inner city. Where many homeless people live. Every day for a couple weeks we would drive by this homeless camp. She felt the urge to befriend the homeless man who was living inside. His name was Bruce. She would bring him some food every morning. Until one day we drove by, and his camp was gone. It happens all the time. Homeless camps are forced to be taken down about a week or so after they’ve set up their new “home”. Just as they start to get comfortable in their home. Their HOME. A tarp and cardboard box. A shopping cart with all their belongings. This is what people don’t see happening. Yeah sure there’s shelters – but they can only house so many people. Not near all our homeless population. And many homeless people do want a sense of home when they lay their heads down to sleep. But they’re denied that every time they’re forced to destroy their home and set up elsewhere.
So I hope I’ve dragged up lots of emotions within your heart by now. I’ve been experiencing so many while writing this. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever written because my heart just aches for those less fortunate. Those lost souls who just want to feel loved. I hope you’ll show them some love. How? There’s so many ways.
As mentioned earlier, a simple smile when walking past goes a long way. Spare change if you have – it doesn’t always go to drugs and alcohol. Sometimes, often, it goes to a meal or coffee. Food is also always welcome. But mostly love. Give love.
My daughter and I are arranging our 3rd annual Christmas Warmth on the Streets. We will be putting together care packages and handing them out to many of our homeless on December 22. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to give one to every homeless person, but we’d like to help as many as possible. You can help with that too if you’d like. The link to donate to the GoFundMe campaign is below but you can also contact me directly if you’d rather donate items. I will be sharing a list of items needed for the care packages on Scarred, Not Broken’s Facebook page.