The Journey

About six years ago and few of us Kingdom types in the dtes of Vancouver brainstormed about what we could do that would really make a difference in the lives of women caught in the vice of prostitution and violence. The Journey was one outcome - a fantastic partnership with Linwood House. Here's an article from the province on how that one little seed has grown...

Refuge from mean streets
House on the Sunshine Coast is a respite from harsh reality for 'broken' women

Cheryl Chan
The Province
Sunday, April 27, 2008

When Sarah goes on a weekend escape to the B&B-like surroundings of a mansion on the Sunshine Coast, she spends a lot of time in the bathtub.

It is there in the corner of the "bridal suite" that the 37-year-old former drug addict and prostitute, who was molested as a child, begins the slow process of healing. "I've spent many hours crying in that tub," she said.

Sarah, who does not want her real name used, spent a year in the Downtown Eastside, high on heroin and selling her body to survive.

"I've been beaten up, raped, abused in every kind of way you can think of. I did some pretty ugly things to myself."

By the time she came to the house two years ago, she was already clean, but raw and flooded with shame and guilt.

It was so bad that when she showered, she couldn't bear looking at her body.

But in the quiet tub overlooking the woods, something happened, said Sarah: "It's a connection with you and God and nature, all at the same time. There's a release that happens in your soul."

Sarah is just one of the women who arrive at Linwood House, a Victorian-style residence tucked away on a rural road in Roberts Creek.

Six times a year, a group of 15-20 "broken" women from the Downtown Eastside -- the drug-addicted, the prostitutes -- come, seeking rest and refuge from the hard reality of their daily lives.

Linwood House, a registered charity run by Linwood House Ministries, hosts the three-day getaways for the women.

It is not a retreat or a program. No receptionist takes down their names and checks ID. No therapist measures their progress.

Instead, Linwood House has a 95-year-old grandma who does the baking. An affectionate family dog named Kelly. And beautiful rooms, lovingly decorated.

It's a family home, evidenced by the photos, heirlooms and bric-a-brac handed down through generations.

Gwen McVicker, who co-owns the home with husband Ron and sister and brother-in-law Dorothea and Doug Rae, has only one rule: No drug use.

In five years, none of their guests has broken that rule. Nothing has gone missing. "We treat them as we would our finest guests," said McVicker, 64. "We treat them with dignity and, in return, they treat our home with dignity."

The goal of The Journey, as the trips are called, is to build friendships. "It's easier to do when you sleep together, eat together, play together," said McVicker, who sees the house as a "sacred space" where a "broken world can experience God's extravagance and grace."

It's a place she hopes the women can visit to clear their minds and be away from the survival and victim mode necessary on the rough streets of the city.

To the many women who've come battered and bruised -- emotionally, if not physically -- the mauve and grey house, with a single turret that makes it look like a castle, weaves magic.

"When I walked into that house there was such a powerful sensation of the generations of women that were involved in this house," said Sarah.

The biggest difference between the two locales, she said, is hope.

"There's none of it in the Downtown Eastside. It's the most hopeless, desolate, last-door sort of place there ever was. What Linwood House offers is a little glimmer in your heart of hope."

The house reminded her of happier times. "It brought me back to a place I remembered when I was a child, of family and wholeness and beauty."

Last year McVicker spent a week with a team of female volunteers in the barren streetscape of the Downtown Eastside, with its boarded-up storefronts and trash-strewn alleys.

She stayed in two dingy hotels where windows were nailed shut and the scurrying of rats was heard through the night. One hotel had one shower for every two floors, a single toilet per floor.

It made her more determined to give those who come to her home the best.

When the tough, street-hardened women -- who are referred to Linwood House by friends or by the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission -- do come, they often stand in awe. Some start crying on the driveway.

At Linwood, McVicker champions a simple yet powerful cocktail of therapy: love, acceptance, clean sheets, fresh air, gorgeous food. The women have the run of the five-acre property. They take naps in a sunlit hammock, play bocce on moist grass underneath bare feet, or plant bulbs in the garden.

One woman spent two weeks cooped up in the red-wallpapered library. After a lifetime of being called "stupid" and "worthless," she "devoured every book she [could] get her hands on," she said.

Others head straight to the attic, which has a dress-up nook full of vintage clothes and costumes -- a "safe place," said McVicker, because "some of them never had a childhood" -- while some gravitate towards McVicker's mom, Linda, who became "everyone's grandma."

In the high-ceilinged Great Room, the women gather for conversation, music, art and activities.

McVicker organizes spa days, when volunteers come in to do the women's hair, wash their feet and paint their nails.

One weekend they groomed horses at a nearby farm. Last summer they enjoyed an afternoon on a speedboat in Sechelt Inlet, watching dolphins play.

At the house, the women feast on fresh salmon, free-range chickens, roasted potatoes, blackberry pie with berries picked from the bushes -- all served on the best china. No alcohol is served. But there's plenty of chocolate.

When Linwood House hosted its first Journey five years ago, only two women came. Since then, it's been a full house.

Janet MacPhee, a chaplain at Union Gospel Mission, said the retreats do a world of good for the women. "It gets them out of the dreary downtown and a real opportunity to heal in the country."

The women are "universally thrilled" with the experience, she said.

McVicker finds it difficult to measure Linwood House's success. "We don't measure success by numbers. We measure them by the stories we have.

"The more people come, the more we see them being strong enough to leave drugs, or strong enough to make better decisions. If you spend most of your life thinking one way, how do we expect them to change suddenly? I don't. It's a journey to wholeness."

So McVicker uses a different gauge, seeing progress through women like Rosalynn Humberson, a 39-year-old Downtown Eastside resident who has been an addict and prostitute since she was 12.

The first time she arrived at Linwood House, Humberson soaked up the safety and serenity of her surroundings and slept for three days straight. She loved the "exquisite" meals and Christmas trees in every room, "even the bathroom," during the holidays, but the best thing about the house was the "vibe" from people.

"They treat you like a human being, which is hard to come by sometimes."

After five visits in the past year, she's slowly putting her life together: She stopped selling her body six months ago and she's added 40 pounds to her still-skinny 5'7" frame. Currently on methadone, she is scheduled to get into a treatment facility near Vernon in June.

"I thank Linwood House a lot for what they've done for me. They're like my family," she said.

McVicker said Linwood House is only a small part of these women's journeys.

To continue friendships formed at the house, she has opened a Downtown Eastside version of the Great Room in a condemned building on Hastings.

As part of the ministry, she left for Thailand with a team of volunteers yesterday to work with a similar home that helps prostitutes exit the sex trade.

McVicker estimates it costs $150 for the ferry ride and meals at Linwood House for each woman each weekend. Upkeep on the house is also costly. Two months ago they had to throw away box springs, mattresses and pieces of furniture because of a bedbug infestation.

With more funding, she hopes to host more Journeys and provide a place for women who decide to get off drugs to stay in the interim while waiting for a detox or treatment bed. She also opens up the house to other women in need.

"It's a resting place for a lot of different people from all walks of life."

Linwood House is meant to offer a safe and sacred place, she said. "We don't really consider it our house. It feels like we're taking care of a house that has another purpose."


© The Vancouver Province 2008