Pierre Lavoie still holds on to the words one of his doctors gave to him during one of his lowest points.
"He explained to me that, 'Sometimes, Pierre, we're not choosing the mental illness we will suffer, but we are free to choose which way we live it."
A classical musician, Lavoie has suffered from physical health problems most of his life. He's also fought mental health battles that, on more than one occasion, dragged him into the depths of depression and threatened to cut his life short.
After living on the street for sometime, Lavoie found his path back to life through Project PAL, a non-profit organization that helps bridge the sometimes difficult divide between those struggling with significant mental illness and the greater community.
He got help with housing and found a community who understood where he had been and how he could more forward.
"We specifically place a lot of emphasis on building skills and helping people to improve their quality of life," said Project PAL coordinator, Angela Murphy.
Void to fill
In mid-1970s in Montreal, life for those struggling with significant mental health issues was changing.
A push for de-institutionalization meant former psychiatric patients were now looking for support in the community — and many were left falling through the gaps.
Project PAL emerged to fill that void. Founded by a social worker and former patients, the bilingual organization first aimed to help those leaving hospital find housing.
Over the years, the program expanded to cover more of the needs left unfulfilled in an often-stigmatized population. Social clubs, community meals, adult education, work experience, sports, dancing and advocacy all became part of Project PAL's work.
More than 50 people now rely on the organization's supportive housing service and would likely be homeless if it wasn't available, Murphy said.
Another 350 more rely on the organization for crisis intervention, aid and accompaniment, referrals and other services offered.
"Our members consider PAL their home — where they come to celebrate Christmas, their birthday, share a meal where they will always be welcome, accepted and supported," Murphy said.
Another surprising element grew out of the organization initially founded to solve the most basic challenges faced by those struggling to live in the community.
The PAL choir, established seven years ago out of the need to have a group sing at Christmas, is now one of the organization's most visible components.
"It's a really good example of how initially (someone) may be seen as a person with a mental heath problem, but underneath, there's a musician, there's a singer, there's someone who can write the words to a song," Murphy said.
"When the choir comes together, they're no longer individuals with mental health problems. They're part of a group singing."
Project PAL receives some funding from Centraide and other sources but, like many community organizations, they struggle to meet demand.
The demand for community meals never lets up and the pressure on PAL's other services is growing.
The choir which performs in the community, has no uniforms, use outdated musical instruments and lack means of transporting their gear around.
"The choir may not seem like and essential service," Murphy said. "But it really does, I feel, demonstrate how a person can reintegrate in the community — how a person can feel important again and give back. So we would like to see some money go there."
CBC Christmas Sing-In Charity Drive
CBC Montreal's annual Christmas Sing-In Charity Drive kicks off on Wednesday, Dec. 4 with a day filled with programming live from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
We’ll be collecting donations throughout the day to help Project PAL’s choir purchase much-needed uniforms, equipment and instruments.
On Sunday, Dec. 8, the 34th annual CBC Christmas Sing-In takes over the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul and, for the first time, a second venue at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Bourgie Hall.
The sing-in starts at 3 p.m. and admission is free, though space is limited. Donations collected will go to support Project PAL. To donate now, click here.