iHuman Christmas party builds community beyond consumerism

Around 200 youth from iHuman, a local non-profit community arts agency in Edmonton, celebrated a Christmas party at the Boyle Street Plaza on Thursday.

'It makes me feel like I'm special and I'm a part of something and that I belong'

Chanel Monson poses with her son Landon and partner Cain Schmidt at the iHuman Christmas party on Thursday. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Christmas can be a difficult time for Chanel Monson. She has tuition fees, bills to pay and a six-year old son to raise.

The holiday expectations some take for granted, from gift-giving to costly parties, can be unrealistic on a low-income budget.

"I don't get many opportunities to go out and enjoy activities that are costly and that require more of a budget," she said.​

But on Thursday night, Monson and her son, Landon, had the chance to celebrate the holiday alongside about 200 other youth from iHuman, a non-profit community arts agency in Edmonton.

The Boyle Street Plaza was turned into a drop-in carnival-themed Christmas gala. Volunteers served turkey dinners, clowns twisted balloons into animal shapes and kids in lion face paint chased each other around the gym.  

"It makes me feel like I'm special and I'm a part of something and that I belong. It's a really nice feeling," Monson said.

Volunteers serve up a turkey dinner at the iHuman Christmas party in festive attire. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

iHuman serves roughly 500 marginalized youth in Edmonton every year. Participants use art-based mentorship programs — including music, fashion and visual art studios — to express themselves and work through struggles with homelessness and addictions.

Monson first came to iHuman at 17. There, she said, she found a community and supports that had been missing from her life in a group home. She took up painting and developed a strong connection with the staff.

More than six years later, she is pursuing a social work diploma and volunteers her time with the agency. Chanel and Landon came to the party on Thursday with her partner, Cain Schmidt.

The couple met at iHuman about a year ago and now Schmidt is working on becoming Landon's legal guardian. Schmidt, 21, uses the iHuman studios to make music while also taking a job preparedness course through the agency.

He used the Christmas party as an opportunity to reflect on a year of significant change, with the support of iHuman.

"A year and a half ago, I was scrounging off instant noodles and now I'm eating full blown meals, wearing tuxedos, with my girlfriend and my son," Schmidt said Thursday, the family all dressed in their finest holiday attire. "It's definitely a big, important thing to me."

There were plenty of gifts for children, but that didn't stop the volunteers from having a good time. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Alison Thomas, 25, walked into iHuman for the first time four years ago. She was "in the depths of addiction" and figured the agency would be like any other drop-in centre in the city.

Staff helped her apply for identification cards and support services, but they also connected her with arts programming, such as bead work in the fashion studio.

"Some of us feel like we don't deserve to be big and fancy, but iHuman shows us that we deserve to be thrown a big party. iHuman makes you feel like you're part of a family," Thomas said at the party.

Tyler Bruce said the celebration was an opportunity for forgo the pressures of consumerism in favour of community. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

The Christmas party was on the eve of Tyler Bruce's 25th birthday. At 25, he can no longer access the iHuman services that three years ago, helped him transition out of group homes and work through alcohol addiction.

But now, he's focused on upgrading his education to prepare for university, while continuing to write poetry and screenplays — a passion he cultivated through the agency. The Christmas party, he said, was an opportunity to witness and support the next generation of young people who will benefit from the agency.

"It's nice to know that it's out there because there's a lot of not so nice things out there in the streets and the hearts and minds of people," he said.

The celebration was also a chance, Bruce said, to forgo the consumerism of Christmas for something more indispensable.

"Being able to celebrate as a community, to me that's more important."