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.

Jerry
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

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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

What If I’m Not Grateful For Anything?

Did your parents, or grandparents, tell you often to “count your blessings”? This was something I didn’t understand at all as a kid. But is there a kid who does? When you’re a kid, the world is all about you. You don’t have the maturity to think about others outside your circle. Everything you need is given to you. So it made it harder to count your blessings, and easier to take things for granted.

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I was in a propane explosion when I was nine years old. Although this almost killed me, and left me with scars all over my body, as a kid and teenager I didn’t think I was lucky. Sure I was glad I didn’t die, but I didn’t consider surviving a blessing. I mean, I had scars all over my body. I looked like and felt like a freak. What the heck did I have to be grateful for? I remember crying in the hospital and after going home asking why did this happen to me? I was in so much pain. Physical, emotional, mental. Everything hurt…I had nothing to be grateful for.

But then I grew up. I realized the explosion was quite serious and I could have very easily died or been blown into a wall and hurt even more than I already was. I’ve met burn survivors who lost fingers, noses, ears. Burn survivors who can’t walk or talk very well anymore. I got away with having scar tissue. For this I am grateful.

Enough about me for a second. We live in a sometimes greedy, selfish, egotistical world (not all the time, but more and more). What if, every day, we took the time and gave something that we’re grateful to have, to someone who doesn’t have much? I’m not talking about giving money or goods away all the time. I’m talking about things like giving someone a smile who looks like they’re not having a good day. A smile is something so simple, and I bet you that it’ll make someone’s day – and they’ll be able to turn around and be grateful for that.

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Seeing a parent struggle with kids and the grocery cart in the parking lot. Why not offer 5 min of your time and offer to help load the groceries in their vehicle for them. I’m certain that parent will go home and re-think about what you just did and they’ll be grateful for your kindness.

If you just can’t make someone else’s day, and give something that you may take for granted to someone who would be thankful for it, then we need to at least count our blessings more often. I try to count my blessings every day. I am SO blessed! I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, clothes on my back, three amazing kids, a loving and supportive husband, and an incredible family. But I’m far from perfect – I know there are some things that I have that I take for granted.

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So, with that said, I would like to propose the following: Thankful Thursday. Every Thursday I will post a status, or photo, or video about something I am thankful for that day. Or maybe something I’m grateful for earlier that week. Or last year. Or 10 years ago. It doesn’t matter when or what it is – as long as we take the time to appreciate all that we have, and if/when possible, share with someone a little less fortunate.

Every one is going through something at one time or another. Take a minute. Pause. Breath. And just remember, that there is someone in the world fighting to survive. So at the very least, you can be thankful that you have breath in your lungs. One breath at a time.

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My very personal review of the book, “Wonder” by RJ. Palacio

Freak. Monster. Alien. Ugly. Dirty. – My Review of the Book, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

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I stole the book “Wonder” from my daughter, because it was just collecting dust on her book shelf and I’d been told by numerous people that I need to read it (she’s not much of a reader, but I am trying to convert her). I saw the preview for the movie “Wonder”, and I couldn’t get through the preview without bawling my eyes out. Not only is it emotional to watch a child struggle through life, but it hit me hard because…I was that child.

I don’t want to give away too much of the book – if you haven’t read it yet, you should. But I was able to relate so much to the main character that I found it hard to put down, and not cry the entire time.

I wasn’t born disfigured. I was burned in a propane explosion when I was nine years old. The explosion left me with scars to 45% of my body – which included my face. In the book the main character, Auggie, was born with numerous birth defects. Some of which made his face look like he’d been burned. In fact, that’s what I thought had happened to him when I’d only seen the preview for the movie and hadn’t read the book yet. Some other characters in the book also assume he’s been burned when they first see him. This is probably part of the reason I bawled the entire time. He was a little burned kid entering school – that’s what it looked like anyway.

Even though he wasn’t burned, I found I was able to relate to Auggie in many ways. Besides the obvious – living life looking so much different than the rest of the world; Auggie also struggled with learning the answer to “why”. Why was he born like this? Why was I burned? It was a question that I struggled with for too many years. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned the answer and embraced it. The book ends before Auggie becomes an adult – in fact it’s only a year in his life, but I like to think that he too grows to find the answer as to why.

Auggie

Auggie had a hard time making friends. He held his head down a lot. He covered his face with a helmet or a hood or even with his hair. Here, I was unable to relate to him, but I was able to sympathize. Kids are mean. Adults are too. He was called numerous names. I was called names such as alien, monster, dirty, and the one that hurt the most was freak. Always by strangers. Kids or adults that I didn’t know. Who didn’t know me. The same was true of Auggie. Although most of the name calling and bullying occurred for Auggie directly in his school. I didn’t have to endure that, thankfully. I was surrounded by kids who knew what I had gone through, and even though I lost some friends and didn’t make others, the friends I did have had my back – no matter what. In Wonder, Auggie struggles making friends at first, but then when he finds himself in a bad situation with kids not from his school, he finds that kids who he didn’t realize were his friends, or even cared for him – also had his back. And the friendships started. And Auggie bloomed.

I loved that he would make jokes about his situation. Joke about how he looked. I did and still do, the same thing. I would make jokes with the nurses in the hospital. I joke about “blowing shit up”. You’ll hear me joke about my accident and scars before you’ll see me cry about them. Laughter is the best medicine. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, then how in the world will you handle when people laugh at you? Turn it around, and they’ll learn to laugh with you. And love you too.

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The end of the book did make me choke up. I won’t give away the ending (like I said, if you haven’t read it, you need to). The principal of Auggie’s school is giving a speech. And he quotes J.M. Barrie, “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” The principal goes on to say, “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed…”

It is simply beautiful. And simple. And needed. The principal continues to explain what it being kind means and how do you know you’ve been kind. He quotes Christopher Nolan, “It was at moments such as these that Joseph recognized the face of God in human form. It glimmered in their kindness to him, it glowed in their keenness, it hinted in their caring, indeed it caressed in their gaze.” He goes on to say (and this part really hit me), “Such a simple thing, kindness. Such a simple thing. A nice word of encouragement given when needed. An act of friendship. A passing smile.”

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So will I be going to see the movie? No. I will not be going to a theatre to see it. Why after such a raving review of the book would I say no to the movie? Well, I’m not saying I won’t watch it. I’m saying I won’t go to a theatre to watch it. I look forward to watching it in the comfort of my own home, with my kids surrounding me watching with me, and a box of Kleenex beside me waiting for the inevitable tears.

I do have one complaint about this book. It is written from the point of view of Auggie, his sister, and friends. I wish there was a couple chapters from the point of view of his parents. What kind of emotions and struggles did the parents experience? Hearing my dad tell the story about my accident is pretty incredible, he tells it with such pride. Pride that his daughter survived something so insane. Hearing what my mom experienced brings me to tears every time. Mostly as a mom myself but who really likes hearing that their mom is hurting or scared? I think having the parents point of view in Auggie’s story would have been very powerful. But maybe that’s just me. Sometimes, I like crying.

I highly recommend reading this book, and encouraging your kids to read it as well. And your adult friends. I’d like to wish adult Auggie all the best. Maybe there’ll be a sequel to this book of adult Auggie conquering the world and moving mountains. Because I know he will. He has the same stubborn attitude I have. And I’ve only begun moving mountains.

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