Denis St-Louis, 62, at his Blair Apartments residence on March 3. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

Vernon church gifts friendship to Blair Apartment tenants

Women from Saint John’s Lutheran Church prove downtown affordable rental complex is safe for all

Denis St-Louis’s diamond-studded smile is a regular fixture on the front lines of Vernon’s drug addiction support network.

The 62-year-old has been clean since Nov. 1, 2015, and each stud represents a year of sobriety.

It’s a little reward the faithful Cocaine Anonymous member gives himself for staying on his new path, and he has plenty of teeth left to bedazzle.

But he wouldn’t be smiling so big today without the help of Blair Apartments and the special members of Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.

“I’m living my life by my 12-step program,” St-Louis said back in December.

More than that, he’s found himself a job — one he’s better suited for than practically anybody.

He works for Upper Room Mission’s outreach program, helping the sorts of people he once was get on board with addictions programs and make the hard daily choice to stick with them.

“I work three days a week there — and I get paid!” he exclaimed, diamonds flashing.

Almost five years ago, St-Louis was at a crisis point.

He spent a year of recovery at Bill’s Place before moving to the fledgling Blair Apartments.

There, he learned life skills from staff that serve him today, and just as importantly, he learned he could be accepted by the general public.

The latter was because of ladies like Irene Hirschmiller.

Hirschmiller is a member of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, a group of about 16 women from Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Vernon who meet 10 months out of the year.

Often those meetings amount to altruistic brainstorming sessions, as the women look for ways to affect change both abroad and in the local community.

“We do a lot of missionary work for Third World countries, but we need to do mission work at home as well,” Hirschmiller said.

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Five years ago, when Blair Apartments opened its doors to those transitioning out of shelters in Vernon, the group of women saw an opportunity to help out on the home front.

“These ladies have been with us from the very start and helping even just get things up and running,” Blair Apartments property manager Shelley Kiefkiuk said.

It started with material needs: cutlery, bedding, kitchen appliances, an old piano for the common room – anything the ladies could supply that could be used to fill the barren rooms at Blair Apartments.

By December 2018, the 39 bachelor units were filled with tenants living independently and with few material needs, thanks in part to the continuous support of the Missionary League.

The group then asked themselves what more they could offer beyond household items and a bit of holiday spending money for the tenants around Christmas time. They landed on a deeper sort of need: friendship.

“We thought, we are supporting these people physically, (but) now we would like to support them spiritually,” Hirschmiller said.

“But we don’t want to be pushing our thoughts and beliefs.”

And so, dressed in festive sweaters and bearing baked goods, the ladies brought Christmas to Blair Apartments in 2018.

The evening started with the exchange of sheepish smiles between the ladies and the tenants and progressed into carolling, joke-telling and hugs goodbye.

“Often when people are marginalized or experiencing homelessness or something that distances them from the regular community, there’s a gap, there’s an unapproachability,” said Josh Winquist, with Turning Points Collaborative.

“By having a group like Hirschmiller’s come in, it allows the residents here to re-establish community connections.”

“You often hear that the downtown is unsafe or people don’t want to go downtown,” Winquist continued.

“Well, Irene and her counterparts in this group are here at Blair Apartments and they’re associating, and they’re making connections with people who would otherwise be considered scary or intimidating.”

This past Christmas, the ladies returned for a second visit, and Hirschmiller instantly noticed differences in the party’s atmosphere.

“The hugs didn’t come until the very end last year, but this year there was hugs before we even got in the door,” Hirschmiller said.

St-Louis’ transition came from hard work and personal dedication, but spiritual help — the feeling of friendship from a would-be stranger — gave him the strength and support to reinvent himself.

“No matter what, no matter who, no matter what kind of problem or addiction, what kind of person comes here, they always welcome them. And with those ladies, it’s no judging.”

“That’s very meaningful to the folks who are here, because those relationships that these ladies have established with the residents that have been here for a while, they’re a part of their lives now,” Kiefkiuk said.

The reward is often in the good deed itself, but Hirschmiller says it’s more than that.

“We get just as much if not more than we give when we see what’s happening and we see the growth,” Hirschmiller said.

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Denis St-Louis and Irene Hirschmiller at Blair Apartments in December 2019. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

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