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Feb4WedOnce addicted to drugs, Susan Small now uses her passion for cooking to inspire others. February 4, 2015 by Kristin Ostensen
"If you had met me just four years ago, you would have taken one look at me and crossed the street.” At that time, Susan Small was addicted to painkillers and alcohol, and was facing time in prison. “I was physically and mentally destroyed. I thought life could not possibly get any worse—and yet it did,” she says. “I hit bottoms I never thought I'd come out of. I had nothing left—I was lost and alone.”
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Susan wanted to get clean and start her life over, but she couldn't do it by herself. That's how she ended up at The Salvation Army's Belkin House in Vancouver, a residential program facility that aims to help men and women break the cycle of homelessness.
“The Salvation Army has been monumental in helping me understand the restoration that God has for me,” she says. “God's love makes all things possible. He never gave up on me, so I won't, either.”
Back to the Beginning
Susan first came to Belkin House nine years ago. A trained nurse, she became addicted to prescription drugs after an accident left her with a bad back. When her addiction escalated and got out of control, she lost her husband and her two-year-old son, and became homeless.
“I was renting a room in an apartment, not knowing that the person I was renting from was under eviction,” she shares. “I needed a place to stay and wound up at Belkin House.”
Susan spent six months there but wasn't able to turn her life around.
“At that point, I wasn't ready to hear anything,” she remembers. “I was still reeling from the pain of losing my son. I was angry and I was struggling to stay clean and sober.
“When I left, I swore that I would never, ever, go back to Belkin House.”
Over the next six years, she spiralled downward and didn't know how to break free.
“I would get these spurts of wanting to put my life together, but I just couldn't see what needed to be done,” Susan admits. “Meanwhile, the years were going by and I was getting further and further away from my son.”
Her turning point came during a four-month stay in prison. “I was just so tired,” she recalls. “I'd had an amazing life once and I knew that I could do better than this.”
She went through detox, residential treatment and second-stage housing before she found herself back where she started, at Belkin House, in October 2012.
New Year, New Life
When Susan arrived at Belkin House again, she felt at peace for the first time in ages.
“I found myself sitting across from Peggy Barrett, the director of Belkin House,” she recalls. “She asked if I was sure I wanted to come back and do the program. Honestly, I just knew I had to be there.”
Susan quickly made friends, and started learning and growing as she took courses. She also began volunteering with The Salvation Army, first as a kettle worker.
“The true reward of manning the kettle was the community feedback,” she says. “People would share stories of so many who had been helped by the Army. I was so proud to be a volunteer. I can honestly say it was the best Christmas ever.”
Susan also started volunteering in the kitchen at Belkin House, where she learned that a culinary arts program might be offered in the new year.
“I really didn't think that I would come close to even qualifying for it,” she says, “but I asked Peggy and she told me to go for it.”
Susan was accepted and spent 14 weeks training with Alvin Chong, director of food services at The Salvation Army's Homestead treatment centre. She and three other students had to read a thousand-page textbook, attend classes, cater events and take tests to prove their skills.
“It was classes five days a week and then on the days that we weren't going to school, we'd practise by volunteering in the kitchen,” she says. “I wanted to do the best I could, and I scored second highest in the class.
“It was the most extraordinary experience I've ever had.”
During the six months she stayed at Belkin House, Susan not only developed new skills and friendships but also rediscovered her faith.
“I was raised as a Christian, and was involved in church with my mom,” she says. “It was a place I enjoyed going.”
But as she grew older, she drifted away from God. “Prior to my recovery, I'd only call out to God when I was in deep trouble.”
When she came to Belkin House, Susan was looking for God again, but wondered if He would accept her.
“I believed that there was no way God would want anything to do with me because of all the things I had done,” she says. “I always thought, That's OK for everybody else but they have no idea what a terrible person I am.
“Now I see how becoming completely broken was what I needed in order to move toward God.”
Passion and Gratitude
After completing her training, Susan learned that Homestead was looking for a new chef. Though she was eager for an opportunity to engage her passion for cooking, Susan worried that she would not be the right person for the job at this women's shelter, given her history with drugs and alcohol.
“But then my counsellor said to me, 'Susan, what a testimony of God's love it would be to go in there and show them how you're doing now.' It's so true—it's been a phenomenal experience to work with the women, to know where they're at, connect with them and show them that there is hope.”
In addition to her work at Homestead, Susan now volunteers at Belkin House and a local women's centre. “When I look at what God has given me,” Susan concludes. “It's huge for me to be able to give back—it's given me a tremendous amount of self-esteem. Whether I'm working or volunteering, it's with an attitude of absolute gratitude.”
(Photos: Kim Stallknecht Photography)