Edmonton·Point of View

'A warm hug': A cup of cider and a simple human connection

At the Safe Harbour Society's annual holiday party this week something special happened. A young woman, who is a regular client, came through the doors just as they were closing up. This is her story.

'She looked surprised at this simple sentiment from another person'

Shelley Popovich is an office administrator for Safe Harbour Society (Shelley Popovich)

In Red Deer, the Safe Harbour Society offers crisis support, housing and support services.

For the past 18 months, Shelley Popovich has been their office administrator, also working as an addiction resource consultant.

Despite working so closely with a vulnerable population, last night something special happened. A young woman, who is a regular client, came through the doors just as they were closing up to host a holiday party.

Popovich was so touched by the connection with this young woman, she went home and wrote about it, posting this to her Facebook page.

Today at work we held our annual holiday drop-in, where we invite our partnering agencies and organizations, as well as Safe Harbour friends and supporters.

Food, drink, music and merriment. Something that we don't experience on a regular day at The Harbour.

So when a young woman, who is one of our regular guests, walked through my door at the end of the day and heard the music and laughter wafting around the corner from where our shelter operates, she inquired what was going on.

After I explained it to her she tentatively asked, "May I go in there and see?"

When I replied, "Of course you can!" her eyes registered slight shock as I'm sure she had fully expected the denial that she is accustomed to receiving on a daily basis.

The words 'my kind' from her 18-year-old lips wounded my heart on the spot.- Shelley Popovich

As I invited her to place her three excruciatingly heavy backpacks behind my desk for safe keeping, her eyes registered distress again and she blurted out, "Wait, are there any others of my kind in there?"

The words "my kind" from her 18-year-old lips wounded my heart on the spot.

She is younger than my own daughter and has been through unimaginable experiences in her young life already. I told her in honesty that it was all staff, city council and other folks from various organizations.

She thought for a moment and then said, "OK, give me a minute. I want to look 'homed' when I walk in there."

She took off the ratty shawl that was the top layer to her three hoodies and many sizes too big sweatpants.

She smoothed her hair and nervously touched her face where it was marked with sores from her hardships.

Then she looked down at the large winter boots she was wearing that probably better fit a man twice her size.

I noticed her cracked lips that looked beyond painful. And her petite fingers and broken-to-the-quick nails, dark with dirt from days wandering the streets just surviving and nights sleeping outside.

I assured her that she was quite welcome as she was, and we walked in the room together.

Ask me how hard it was to quell the tears that threatened to spill from my eyes in that exact moment.- Shelley Popovich

She drew in a sharp breath as we entered. I worried for a minute that it was too much for her, as I am familiar with her struggles with anxiety.

But she assured me that she wanted to carry on. She took in the sights and sounds of the boisterous room like a small child in wonder.

I took in that not one person turned a head or raised an eyebrow at this young girl, who was obviously someone we serve. My heart swelled with happiness and relief at this.

I invited her to help herself to the goodies. Her eyes widened as she tried to choose, and I told her that she should definitely take one of each.

She did.

I poured her some apple cider, and as she took the first sip, her eyes closed momentarily and she murmured, "This tastes just like a warm hug."

Ask me how hard it was to quell the tears that threatened to spill from my eyes in that exact moment. We chatted over our refreshments like two old friends. I introduced her to other party-goers as they came to fill their cups.

Executive directors, city councillors, doctors and other professionals that she assumed would have no interest in her. She had the prettiest shy smile each time she was greeted.

She hadn't even touched her goodies yet, and I knew it was dinner time at the Mustard Seed.

I reminded her of the time, so she wouldn't miss a meal. But she asked, "Is it OK if I stay here a while? This is the first time I have felt like this in a really long time. No one ever actually listens to me or treats me like you have. You make me feel like a person."

A person. This sounds so simple but this noun is so profound. A whole, valuable, worthy person.

The foundation of our humanity is dignity and above all, to be loved.

 Her eyes were shining and took the place of her usual sulk.- Shelley Popovich

The very basic of needs that this beautiful young woman has been robbed of, while I think nothing of walking into a room full of people or mindlessly filling my plate with festive goodies or a warm, comforting drink.

I sat with her and listened. It was like she couldn't get her words out fast enough to share everything she wanted to. She is well-spoken and wise beyond her young years.

I enjoyed taking in this side of her, [which] I've never seen, as she is typically sullen or withdrawn. It was wonderful.

I felt badly when it was time to start cleaning up and encourage her to gather her things to head out.

She lingered in the office with me a while longer, still sharing her thoughts and her dreams to survive her life and do something big.

Her eyes were shining and took the place of her usual sulk.

She was sent on her way with two mugs of leftover apple cider and a genuine, "thank you for coming" from one of our management team members.

She looked surprised once again at this simple sentiment from another person toward her.

I helped her strap on her three monstrous backpacks that I'm sure outweighed her tiny frame, and told her to come in and visit me any time.

Then I watched her cross the street and disappear into the shadows as I felt my heart let go and ache.

Now my tears fell freely.

From now on, whenever I drink apple cider, I will feel a warm hug and think of my sweet young friend. I pray she regains the dignity she wholly deserves and the love that God intends us all to have.

I pray that she is reasonably warm and safe wherever she finds to sleep outside tonight.

But first, I pray that she survives her life.

About the Author

Shelley Popovich

Safe Harbour Society

Shelley Popovich is an Office Administrator and Addiction Resource Consultant for Safe Harbour Society in Red Deer