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

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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.

Sleeping bag through wall
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

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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