Pearson: An ennobling struggle to build a life of purpose, hope

Melissa Sheehan, 30, has faced trauma, poverty and mental illness.

A lot has been said, written, sung, painted and even preached on the subjects of poverty, mental illness, addictions and homelessness in London during the past few years. Over time our brains have been hijacked into placing each of these challenges into their own separate categories, when the reality is that thousands of our citizens in this city frequently move through them on a continual basis. Many remain mired in such conditions because not enough supports are there to help move them along, while others have been fortunate enough to acquire proper assistance to begin the process of building their lives.

Like Melissa Sheehan, for example. At thirty years of age, she has endured more than her share of careening disappointments and setbacks and yet has established a life where she can reach out past her daily trials.

Sheehan’s journey into self-reliance began when she left a difficult home situation at sixteen. She ran the gamut of staying with friends, to community shelters and then geared-to-income housing. She had endured events of physical and sexual abuse and lost friends to suicide and other tragedies equated with poverty and isolation.

Finally meeting with this remarkable woman at a local coffee shop, traits of strength and endurance were obvious, as were moments of vulnerability and transparency. “I have real trust issues,” she says openly, “and I deal with self-esteem and self-image issues everyday.” My daughter Abuk and I listen as she tells of enduring PTSD, depression, and periods of deep mental illness.

It’s a sad tale, at times deeply emotional. But soon enough emerges a sense of hope and humanitarianism that she says helps her get up in the morning and head out for the day. Despite a saga of deep pain and disappointment, there abides a sense of purpose, a need for community that somehow overcomes all the pain she must live with. She shares her personal journey, “as my way of educating people about what poverty, homelessness and mental-health issues exist and what the individuals living with those issues need most.” An air of conviction frames these words, filling them with a kind of urgency.

Because of her struggles, steady employment has been difficult for Sheehan to maintain. But things are improving. In November 2016, she acquired her Grade 12 equivalency through the help of Fanshawe College. She is, at present, exploring options for moving forward in her education experience.

For all she has endured in three decades, Melissa could be forgiven for speaking out against the systems of support that failed her. Yet she refrains from grousing excessively about such systems. “I want to work and support those trying to end poverty and homelessness in London and not resist the changes they propose. There is far more that can be done towards ending poverty than rejecting or resisting these ideas.”

It’s clear from listening to her that she believes that it is in combining forces with institutions and individuals that those enduring life on the margins of community can work toward solutions. There remains something hopeful in that outlook and Sheehan has spent the last few years seeking to understand anti-poverty initiatives and those who seek to intervene on behalf of those struggling to escape the oppressive clutches of poverty, mental illness and homelessness.

One other aspect of Sheehan’s outlook was obvious: she is a fearless woman. She willingly tackles those who denigrate her efforts on social media and claims that the best way she can help others in similar circumstances is to build relationships instead of tearing them down.

Abuk and I left this remarkable woman as she made her way to Sanctuary London before she got back to her part-time job in a department store. We talked about how, all too often, Londoners fail to grasp that the best hope poverty has is found in those struggling to escape it — their veracity, adaptability, sense of social justice, and desire to be an active part in a community that seeks to eradicate those things in society that denigrate it.

We came away from meeting a woman we knew very little about with the sense we had been ennobled in some way. “You should write about her, Dad,” suggested Abuk. Now that I have, I am even more inspired.

Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre. 

(This article first appeared in the London Free Press on Friday, Oct. 20th)