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    The Gathering Place

    At Moncton’s community and family services, relationships are the key to transformation. February 15, 2019 by Kristin Ostensen
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    Feature Articles
    Robert Mombourquette cooks and serves French toast at The Gathering Place (Photos: Kristin Ostensen)
    Robert Mombourquette cooks and serves French toast at The Gathering Place (Photos: Kristin Ostensen)
    In Moncton, N.B., The Salvation Army’s community and family services (CFS) on King Street is a beacon of hope for people who are struggling. While the Army offers many services, most clients connect with CFS through The Gathering Place, a weekday breakfast program that is the only one of its kind in the area. More than providing food, the program gives staff an opportunity to meet clients one-on-one in a safe, respectful environment.

    “People are looking for someone who cares, who will put time and effort into hearing them out and getting them the help that they need,” says Natasha Burkett, executive director. “It doesn’t matter what program we’re running—we’re connecting sincerely with people and building relationships.”

    Three men whose lives have been transformed by their connection with CFS share their stories:



    A Second Chance


    When people walk into the Army’s CFS, Robert Mombourquette is often the first friendly face there to greet them. When he isn’t volunteering his time in the kitchen at The Gathering Place, he is meeting people at the door, giving directions and answering questions, or helping with administrative work.

    Robert Mombourquette and Natasha Burkett stand by a brick wall“People are looking for someone who cares,” says Natasha Burkett, with Mombourquette
    “It’s a good place to be,” he says. “I look forward to coming here in the morning, and when I leave at night, I go back with a smile.”

    Mombourquette has been volunteering with The Salvation Army for about two years, the first half of which was done while he was still incarcerated. He became connected to the Army through Positive Lifestyles, a reintegration program offered by Greenfield House, a Salvation Army halfway home, for people serving a life sentence.

    “When you’re inside, you take a lot of programs, so when I heard about Positive Lifestyles, I thought it was just another program,” he recalls. “But I enjoyed it so much, I did it twice, back-to-back!”

    Through Positive Lifestyles, Mombourquette connected with Alex Greening, then executive director of Greenfield, who suggested he participate in a pilot project that would give lifers an opportunity to gain work experience in the community.

    “When Alex asked me to work here, my view of The Salvation Army at the time was that it was another organization looking for money,” Mombourquette recalls. “But when I came, they were just starting their holiday camp program and I saw a whole different side of things. I couldn’t believe what they were doing for the kids. It was an eye-opener.”

    For 14 months, Mombourquette volunteered with the breakfast program every Tuesday and Thursday, and though he was released last April, he hasn’t stopped. In fact, he’s often at The Salvation Army five days a week.

    “From the first day that he arrived here, it was a good fit,” says Burkett. “We’ve become close with Robert—we’ve adopted him—and now that he’s out and reintegrating back into the community, he’s got more time to give. Our clients love him—he relates to them very easily. He’s easy to talk to and he’s got a big heart to give back to the community.”

    Reflecting how much he is appreciated by the CFS staff, Mombourquette received a special gift from Val McClusky, who runs the breakfast program, upon his release.

    “About six months before I got out, Val asked me what my favourite colour was,” Mombourquette says. “I told her it was red and didn’t think much of it. But on my first day back here, she brought me the most beautiful handmade quilt I’ve seen. It blew me away. I couldn’t believe it.”
    Mombourquette says he never expected he would find this kind of acceptance after serving a life sentence. “A lot of people will judge you on that one incident, and they can’t see past it,” he says.

    “We all deserve a second chance. And I can definitely say this place has given me one.”



    Into the Light


    When Brian Ingersoll left the drug game in Moncton two years ago, he was one of the most notorious dealers in town.

    “My house was like a drive-through,” he says. “It was the busiest place in the city.”

    Brian Ingersoll stands by a brick wall“I thank The Salvation Army for changing my life,” says Brian Ingersoll
    He had been selling drugs, on and off, since he was 14 years old, but drugs and violence were always a part of his life.

    “My father was a biker and my whole family was doing illegal things, so I was born into that lifestyle,” he shares. “By the time I was nine, I was being shot up with coke and speed, so my mom and grandmother arranged for me to leave. They gave me $45 and away I went. I ended up in Fredericton, living on the street.”

    His situation in Fredericton was no better. After a year of living on the street, he was taken in by a sex worker and developed biker gang connections, becoming incarcerated as a juvenile for the first time at 12, and as an adult at 16. “I’ve been in jail a lot,” Ingersoll admits ruefully. “All combined, more than 30 years.”

    Up until 2016, that was the only life he knew. But like so many others, Ingersoll found more than a meal at The Gathering Place—he found a new beginning.

    “I was at the point where I was killing myself,” he says. “I was living on the street, doing drugs, going to jail constantly. The people at The Salvation Army have helped me go from that, to who I am now—a complete 180 from where I was before.”

    Turning Point
    When Ingersoll speaks about his early life, even decades later, he becomes emotional, reflecting the deep-seated trauma he is still healing from today.

    “The streets aren’t very nice,” he says. “That’s a world most people don’t see, they’re blind to it, so they don’t know how vicious it is.”

    Ingersoll had his first serious run-in with the law at the age of 17 when he took the lives of two men who brutally raped a close female friend of his. He received a lengthy prison sentence as a result of those actions, but that time in jail would plant the first seeds of faith in his life.

    “I learned how to count because of money I got selling drugs, but I couldn’t read or write,” he says.

    During that period of incarceration, two friends offered to help him become literate. “They brought the Bible out and taught me how to read,” Ingersoll says, “but it was just a book to me at that point.”

    He came back to the Bible with fresh eyes in 2010 while he was living in Halifax. “I started watching a Christian television program, and wrote to the church, asking for Bible studies to help me understand what I was reading,” he says.

    Through that contact, Ingersoll connected with a local Wesleyan pastor, started attending services and was baptized. “I was pretty happy,” he recalls. “I started to change my way of thinking.”

    Before long, however, he fell back into dealing drugs. “I was asking myself, how am I going to change my way of making money? Because no one would hire me,” Ingersoll notes. “I put out more than 100 resumés and couldn’t get a job.”

    But being a high-level drug trafficker came with a cost—Ingersoll still bears the scar from the day he was shot in the shoulder while walking down the street. By 2016, he had finally had enough.

    “A young woman brought her baby, 14 months old, to my house and wanted to pawn the kid for drugs, and then come back and pick up the kid when she paid for the dope,” he remembers. “I lost it. I just couldn’t believe it.”

    Ingersoll told the woman to leave and alerted a friend of his who worked in social services, who arranged for the child to be rescued.

    It was a turning point for Ingersoll—but what would he do instead, once he left that life behind? He found the answer at The Salvation Army.

    New Outlook
    Ingersoll first connected with the Army’s CFS six years ago, after he moved to Moncton to be closer to his daughter.

    “When I came here, I had just gotten out of jail and I was on the street,” he says. “I heard about this place and started coming for breakfast.”

    Even though he was still selling drugs, Ingersoll developed a deep respect for The Salvation Army. “I never sold dope around here—I was totally against it. This was not the place for that,” he says. “When I came here, I had a peace of mind. It gave me a different outlook on life, something I’d never seen before.”

    That new perspective came through the way he was treated by the staff and the conversations he had with them about faith.

    “We’d talk about the Bible every time I came in, and I would ask questions about things that I didn’t understand,” Ingersoll says.

    “The staff here don’t look at you like you’re a bum,” he continues. “They actually care for people and they want to help. It comes from their hearts.”
    "I owe these guys my life because they’ve helped bring me out of the pit of hell, into the light."

    One of the most significant ways the CFS staff has helped Ingersoll in the last year is by driving him to Saint John, N.B.—a three-hour round trip—on two occasions so that he could have open-heart surgery. “The care that they put out to people is just phenomenal,” he reflects. “That’s the only word for it.”

    “Brian is a great guy,” says Burkett. “We’ve helped him in practical ways, like breakfast, laundry and clothing vouchers. But more importantly for Brian, I think he’s found a place where he can come and talk if he needs to. He’s made friends
    here.”

    Through these experiences, to his surprise, Ingersoll developed something he had never had before. “My whole life, I had no conscience,” he says. “My life meant nothing, so what did somebody else’s mean? Absolutely nothing. And now I end up having a conscience. I said, ‘Where did this come from?’ I didn’t want it!”

    Special Connection
    Ingersoll had not attended church since his time in Halifax. But when he learned that the CFS staff could pick him up and take him to Moncton Citadel Community Church for Sunday services, he jumped at the opportunity.

    “It was excellent,” he shares of his first time there. “The people there are straight up. They are godly, Christian people. The worship, the music, the preaching—it’s all good. I recommend The Salvation Army to anybody that asks me about church.”

    Ingersoll has been attending the corps for about a year and a half—Todd Benoit, community ministries worker at CFS, picks him up on Sundays—and is growing in his walk with Christ.

    “I’ve gone from not believing in it whatsoever, and not even caring about it, to the point where I’m handing out Bibles to people on the street, talking to people about Jesus,” he says.

    “I think Brian’s found a special connection at Moncton Citadel,” says Burkett. “Our corps has opened themselves up to him and taken him in.”
    Ingersoll agrees. “Being a part of The Salvation Army means a lot to me,” he says. “I feel I owe these guys my life because they’ve helped bring me out of the pit of hell, into the light.

    “They’ve shown me what caring for people is all about,” he continues. “They’ve taught me about forgiveness, which I didn’t do before. And they’ve helped me put a lot of things in my past away, which is really important because I’ve got quite a pile of things.”

    For Burkett, watching Ingersoll’s transformation over the past two years has been incredible. “He’s grown exponentially, in a personal way and a spiritual way,” she says. “He’s had so many challenges in his life, including his recent health concerns, but he’s such a blessing to have around.”

    “I thank The Salvation Army for changing my life,” Ingersoll concludes. “I can’t put it into words how much they mean to me, and what they’ve done for me.”



    Support Network


    "I had everything—a $500,000 home, three cars, a beautiful girlfriend and five dogs, but in reality, I had nothing.”

    Behind the veneer of his successful life, Mark Melanson was struggling with depression and alcoholism. And six years ago, everything fell apart, leaving him homeless.

    Mark Melanson and Todd Benoit share a moment at the Petitcodiac RiverMark Melanson and Todd Benoit share a moment at the Petitcodiac River, a short walk from CFS
    Melanson was a Red Seal chef, working at a restaurant in Moncton, when he met his girlfriend and his life began to go downhill.

    “I always said that nothing would ever come between me and my kids, but she didn’t have any kids and was jealous of the love that I was giving them,” Melanson shares. “I started to neglect my kids for this relationship—it got to the point where I wasn’t seeing them for months at a time—and I started deteriorating. I was so distraught.”

    Melanson had been a social drinker for years, but as he became more and more depressed, he started to drink heavily and couldn’t work anymore. When his relationship with his girlfriend finally ended, he was a broken man. “We’d become codependent on each other,” he reflects. “My identity was all about her.”

    Once he was living in shelters, Melanson was shoplifting to support his addiction and started getting in trouble with the law. About a year after he became homeless, he was convicted on 10 charges and sentenced to three months in jail. “I had to call my family from the jail to tell them,” he remembers. “It was the worst, most devastating period of my life, going to jail for the first time and telling my kids—it broke their hearts.”

    Melanson had his last run-in with the law in September 2017. “That’s when it shifted,” he says. “I thought, I’m 50 years old, this is it, I’m done. I’m not going to go any further in life, I’m not going to develop any relationship with anybody, especially my kids, if I don’t change.”

    It was around that same time that Melanson became more involved with The Salvation Army. He first connected with CFS about five years ago through The Gathering Place breakfast program. “When you’re homeless, you find out where free meals are really quick,” he says.

    “Initially, my relationship with The Salvation Army was based on needs—clothing, food, the basics for survival,” he continues. “It took a few years but over time I bonded with the staff.”

    “Mark was someone who didn’t have a network of support, and so The Salvation Army was there for him,” says Burkett. “We didn’t ask too many questions, we didn’t judge. He came in, used our services, and built relationships.”

    Melanson is now working full-time, but when he was participating in rehabilitative programs and getting back on his feet, he spent many hours at CFS.

    “I would come in here in the mornings and I’d hang out for a couple hours after everybody left, just to talk,” he says. “Loneliness doesn’t breed good things, not for anybody recovering from addictions.”

    Through the influence of his relationships with the CFS staff, Melanson also started attending Moncton Citadel Community Church. “To get over addictions, you need more than medication and keeping busy,” he says. “There’s a spiritual void and you need Jesus. That’s when you start seeing miracles happen in your life.”

    For Melanson, the corps has been a spiritually nourishing and welcoming community. “You feel actual love from the people—the soldiers, everybody there. You feel it.”

    As he continues to grow in faith, Melanson says The Salvation Army is the right place for him. “God is going to guide you, he’s going to put you exactly where you’re supposed to be. And this is where he sees a surrender that I work on every day.”

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