Denis St-Louis’ eyes sparkle and deep crevasses shift into broad cracks as he smiles.
He loves being alive.
“I have found peace and I live in the now, today,” he said.
But that wasn’t always the case for the 58-year-old.
Sixteen years ago, he was busy with his own recycling business in the Fraser Valley, but drugs — crystal meth — and gambling soon grabbed a hold of him.
“It was my life but I was in denial,” he said.
Eventually, he shifted to Kelowna and his addictions followed. But after a particularly difficult morning where he had no drugs and no money, St-Louis hit the road four years ago.
His next stop was Vernon and he’s been here ever since.
Among his first contacts was the John Howard Society and he entered a harm reduction program, but he relapsed after a year-and-a-half. Meth took over once again — that is until he fell prey to a stroke and an infection set in.
Being admitted to Vernon Jubilee Hospital was a wakeup call.
“The doctor said, ‘Do you want to live or die? If you keep doing this, you will die,’” said St-Louis. “I was scared to get out of the hospital.”
It was while he sat in a common area that he met a woman visiting a patient.
“She took time to talk to me and she said, ‘Do you want to be reborn?’ We prayed and cried,” said St-Louis, whose attempts to find the women later failed.
“I believe I got touched by an angel. It had to be something stronger than me.”
It was then that St-Louis pledged to break the cycle of drugs.
“I decided to do this for me — not to be a people-pleaser. This is for me.”
He immediately entered Bill’s Place, which provides a range of recovery programs, and sat down with Brad Houghton, manager of addiction services.
“The first question I was asked was, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to die.’”
Houghton remembers that first encounter with St-Louis.
“He was desperate and broken and now he’s full of hope and dreams,” said Houghton.
“From where he was then until now, the change has been miraculous. Recovery is not just about being clean and sober. It’s about meaningful relationships and being comfortable in your own skin.”
St-Louis gets up early every morning and goes to a sobriety meeting. He also spends time with those just new to Bill’s Place.
“He connects with the new guys because he’s been where they’ve been,” said Houghton.
St-Louis’ interpretation of those morning sessions on the deck are different.
“They’re helping me. I laugh, I listen.”
St-Louis has been clean for a year and he’s moving out of Bill’s Place. His plans include helping out at his church and pursuing an education, perhaps as a substance abuse counsellor.
He also wants to tackle public perceptions about those living on the street.
“Some have mental challenges or no money. They can’t keep a job. To keep a job, you need to be clean and sober. It’s nothing to do with being lazy. They’re too advanced in their drugs,” he said.
For Kelly Fehr, John Howard’s director of operations, St-Louis is a good example of how the society can make a difference.
“It’s important to know there is help in Vernon and there is hope and recovery. People will support you,” said Fehr.
Bill’s Place, which is completely reliant on donations, has a success rate of 28 per cent for participants staying sober six months or longer.
“That’s higher than any other program in the province,” said Fehr.
For more information on Bill’s Place, go to www.johnhowardbc.ca/regions/north-okanagan/welcome/ or call 250-542-3555.