Tuesday, December 5, 2017

it's the most wonderful time of the year!

colourful christmas lights. beautiful music. egg nog chais. turkey. family. friends. immanuel: God with us.

as josh groban sings in polar bear express, "there's no time to waste - there's so much to celebrate!"

but for some of us, there's also conflict, anxiety and financial stress, and heartache.

no matter how hard you try, you can't avoid it. you're overtired from working so much so that your kid can get that toy he's been eyeing. you dread sitting across the table from your uncle bill. you miss your mom and dad.

i'm right there with you.

the key to getting through any holiday (or any day, period), i find, is to:

1. be intentional about celebrating the good.

i bought a cute elf sweater last week because it made me feel 'christmasy', and well, because i look cute in it (maybe i should take a sELFie?). i wrote and mailed over 40 heartfelt christmas cards to my peeps far away and am currently working on writing more for those friends who are near. i stop in at a coffee shop once in a while for my favourite christmas drink or hot chocolate and feel all the feels as i drink from a festive cup. i have been reading the christmas story over and over to remind myself that God is with us - with me - through it all, and the list goes on. want to get through the holidays? make a christmas 'bucket' list of your own and check it twice.

2. let yourself feel what you feel when you feel it.

start crying in the mall when you see that special gift you would have bought your mom if she were alive? let the tears flow. tired of uncle bill's banter? excuse yourself for a minute to get some fresh air. stressed about money? be creative with your gifts. better yet, be present; you ARE a gift!

3. make time for memories.

this one is big for me personally.

sometimes i just close my eyes and picture my family and i sitting at the table at the nottawasaga inn four days before my dad passed away. i can picture how happy he was even now and how loved he felt when he opened all of his gifts. 'operation spoil your parents' is what we called it; my siblings and i decided to 'forfeit' all of our gifts and just spend everything we had on our mom and dad, and am i ever glad we did.

if i close my eyes tight enough, i can put myself back there and feel his joy once again, and when i'm really lucky, i can even hear his voice.

two christmases a go, on the 21st of december to be exact, i got the scariest phone call of my life. my brother in law called to tell me that the doctors wanted all of us to get to the hospital as fast as we could because she wasn't going to make it. this was especially scary for me seeing as how there was a five hour drive (at the very least) in between us. "please don't let her die before i get there", i prayed. "please".

well, she didn't. in fact, in true linda castrucci fashion, she stuck her tongue out at me when i arrived. "i'm not dying in december, paula. everyone in our family dies in december".

and she's right, most of my family has died around the holidays (hoping we all make it through this one LOL), but not her. oh, not her.

as scary as it was, i'm thankful for that phone call because it enabled me to spend an extra few days with my mom before she passed away less than six weeks later. because she wasn't able to leave the hospital for christmas like we planned, we brought it to her. decorations, presents, funny hats and antlers, the whole works. we made it work, and it was beautiful.

if i close my eyes, i can picture that, too.

missing someone? close your eyes. you may cry, sure. i just did. but keeping our memories alive is worth it.

4. now open your eyes and look at the people you 'still have left'.

i honestly dont know where i would be without my friends and family (and friends who are family). love can't bring your loved ones back or fill the hole you feel at the time of year entirely, but it can help. it does help. take it from me - i made it through the past six christmases because of it, and i'll make it through this one, too. so will you.

"the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us")

and remember most of all, God is with us. He's with me and He's with you!

Monday, November 27, 2017

a girl i work with called me fat the other day. (well, technically, she referred to the other paula as the 'skinny one' when i asked her which one she called for, but it sure felt like it.) i looked at her in shock and asked her why she would say such a thing. she laughed. i told her it's not funny, and she laughed again.

a few minutes later, she went out of her way to aPAULAgize to me. her face said it all; she was embarrassed that this particular comment had come out of her mouth.

"thanks, ____. i still love you", i said.

she apologized again, i told her i forgive her, she walked away relieved, and a guest stepped in right away.

"you're a great manager", she said. "the fact that your staff find you approachable enough to admit when they make a mistake is a big deal, and the way you responded to that girl is an even bigger one. we all make mistakes and i sure wouldn't want someone holding something i did against me. good for you".

this got me thinking.

1. in the same measure you forgive, you will be forgiven.

"for if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. but if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" [matthew 6:14-15]

my guest was right and that scripture is clear; i would hate for other people (or more importantly, for God) to hold my crap against me, so i better be quick to let go of other peoples.

2. people are always watching.

i had no idea that one of my guests was watching the interaction between my coworker and i, but i tell you one thing, am i ever (extra) glad that i responded the way i did.

the choices we make (and the things we talk about) not only impact others, but reflect who we are and what we stand for, and i want to be known for one who remains approachable, doesn't let offence take root in my heart and extends grace, because well, the Lord knows how much grace has been extended to me.

Friday, November 24, 2017

"all homeless people are a-holes", he said, as he stormed into the kitchen.

not a great start to our week, i thought.

you see, a team from the states and i were serving at one of my favourite spots in toronto, st. francis table. minutes before starting time, i had divided them into two groups: front of the house (servers) and back of the house (coffee makers, dishwashers etc). this particular gentleman, lets call him david for privacy reasons, nervously volunteered to serve in the front.

that didn't last long, if you couldn't tell. it took all of five seconds for david to label every single 'homeless person' an 'a-hole' based on one uncommon and unkind interaction. (unfortunately, this isn't uncommon; we're all guilty of labelling people from time to time based on one experience or assumption.)

part of my role as project serve team lead with youth unlimited is to prevent this from happening by doing what i can to break down the stigma attached to homelessness through pre-trip meetings, various service projects, and post trip discussion ...

but i can't do it alone.

some of you know that in order for me to do this full-time (in addition to my role on staff at the church in regent park), i need to fundraise my salary (whose idea was it to put the word FUN in FUNdraise). thanks to a whopping 34 generous donors, i have hit the 25% mark and am able to work for youth unlimited for ten hours a week. (THANK YOU SO MUCH.)

the 'scary' part is, i have until january to make it to the 40% mark before they decide whether or not i can continue to work for them at a sustainable rate. the good news is, i am only $900/month away from my target, which, if you break it down, means that i would need 30 of you to commit to $30/month, my '30 @ $30'.

for $30/month (or a donation of your choice including one time/end of the year gifts), you will:

- get a tax receipt
- receive handwritten letters from yours truly
- have the assurance that you are being prayed for (though you don't have to give financially for me to do so lol)
- be investing in the next generation
- be helping me break down the stigma attached to homelessness and those on the margins of society
- help many non profits downtown toronto continue to do the same by providing the volunteers they need to keep going (ministry profiles coming soon), among other things.

so ... what do you say? will YOU consider being a part of my team?

if so, you can write cheques (do they still exist?!), call our office, or donate through Canada helps [canadahelps.org - search youth unlimited (toronto YFC) - scroll down to donate monthly (or donate now) and under "apply your donation to a specific fund set up by this charity", click my name (number 09)] and BOOM - you're not only helping me, but many, many others.

any questions? holla for paula. i would love to sit down with you and chat over a glass of egg nog or lunch.

Monday, October 30, 2017

what you see depends solely on what you look for, and all i see is love.

a guy came into starbucks the other day looking for an outlet, but there weren't any tables left close enough for him to plug in his laptop. a young woman noticed and offered him her table. love is thoughtful and kind.

a lady showed up to our mid-week life group for the first time ever last week and became emotional during the movie we were watching. I went out to get her some Kleenex, only to return to find two of our group members surrounding her and rubbing her back. love comforts.

i haven't been at my best lately. feeling anxious and fighting depression. my housemates sent me a text asking if i needed any soup 'or anything' the other day, to which i replied, "more like some pizza. j/k". a few hours later, my friend Justin knocked on my door and handed me a piece of the pizza he made for dinner. love notices and reaches out.

a mentor of mine once told me that when possible, it was in my best intention to bring a friend with me to any ministry related events. i had a speaking engagement last week and asked a great friend of mine if she would come along with me and she did. love supports.

another friend of mine is graduating university this december. she called me the other day to let me know that she paid for my flight to texas so that i could be there to celebrate with her. love is generous.

a lady at the community dinner i help with on saturdays is quite sick. she can be quite demanding and moody at times - and truthfully, very needy and time consuming - but as i remind myself of each week every time i see her, love is beautiful and patient. (lord knows i'm not always easy to deal with, either).

it always protects.
always trusts
always hopes
and always perseveres.

love never gives up.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

there's different kinds of depression, you see.

there's the kind that comes with losing a loved one (either by death or breakup) or a job, financial or relational stress, unmet expectations, you name it. i call this type of depression circumstantial. though it can be deep and often hard to shake, you're aware of the source of it.

then there's the kind i fought this past week - the kind that creeps up on you and doesn't make sense. no matter how hard you try, you can't figure out what's wrong.

you have so much to be thankful for - you know that - and yet, your brain - no matter how hard you try and stop it - keeps highlighting your lack, and making crap up.

you're a failure.
no one loves you.
they're using you.
don't bother reaching out - no one will understand.
they have both parents. you have none.
they have a spouse and kids. you don't have those, either.
and you never will.
you'll always be alone.

that was my thought process more or less the past week. some more intense than others, some more frequent than most.

here's the thing - these thoughts are so damn irrational. i know that. that's why this kind of depression doesn't make sense to me.

how can something you know isn't true seem true?

a lot of you won't be able to understand this, i know (i can't even put it into words a lot of the time), but for those of you who do,

keep fighting. reach out. seek peace. lock yourself in your room and turn off the lights if you have to. take a nap. pray. write. pet a dog. hold a baby. go see a movie. spend some time outside. go for a walk. do what you have to do. just don't give up.

i'm not giving up - don't you, either.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

my backpack mirrors my brain today; it's bright but full of clutter.

i had my whole day planned before i went to bed last night. get up early and make some oatmeal work on my life group talk for tomorrow. make an important phone call, write a birthday card and letter, blog, go to work, prepare for life group some more and so forth.

only i slept in. granted, it was only ten minutes, but those ten minutes threw me off guard.

a minute later, i received a text from my friend and housemate, justin, asking me if i wanted to go get some work done at our local starbucks. i said yes and immediately felt stressed.

the amount of time it took me to shower and make oatmeal stressed me out. so did the pile of dishes in the sink that greeted me, and the fact that the garbage men come tomorrow and i had to get that organized before i left for the day. not to mention packing a lunch and snacks so i don't spend money and eat crap, and trying to remember the million other things i needed to pack to ensure that i was set for the day and didn't forget anything (which i did, by the way).

and then i get to starbucks and my friend needed to talk (not complaining - this will always be a priority), my laptop wouldn't work, and i wasted a lot of time fighting with it AND a wasp that kept attacking me. and on top of all of this, i missed an important call and sent an unnecessary text (and beat myself up for it).

needless to say, i feel a little overwhelmed today, because, well, my brain is cluttered with so. many. unnecessary. things.

ever have one of those days? days when you feel you can't keep up and everything is going wrong? if so, you're in a good company.

BUT here is my advice to you - to us - this afternoon as i sit here and reflect on my chaotic morning:

keep the minor stuff, minor, and the major stuff, major.

those dishes in the sink? they can wait. that stuff you forgot at home? forget about it. the text you sent? you can't take it back. that wasp that's pestering you? kill it. (or trap it and set it free, wasp lovers).

you catch my drift.

instead, focus on the fact that you have a friend sitting next to you and that you were able to be present when he needed you to be. that your laptop eventually started working again and that you have a backpack full of things - or the biggest major of all (or at least, my biggest major): that bad days end, everything always has its way of working out, and above all else, God loves me (you) and cares about every single detail of my (your) life and is always by my (your) side.

i leave you with this:

"as Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named martha opened her home to him. she had a sister called mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. but Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. she came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? tell her to help me!”

“martha, martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”.

few things are needed - indeed only one.

keep the minor stuff, minor, and the major stuff, major, friends.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

i know i told everyone to call me FALLa starting today, but due to the sudden burst of beautiful weather this week, i just can't seem to retire my summer name, POOLa, quite yet.

i got out of the pool this morning only to notice a feisty squirrel staring down my cat. disclaimer: it's not my cat - it's my friend's cat; i don't even like cats, but the protective lioness in me came out when i saw that my my friend's cat was being hunted by a predator. like for real - i'm pretty sure i saw it it licking its lips.

but here's the thing. harper was oblivious to the fact that she was seconds away from being on the wrong side of the food chain. but i wasn't. i stared that squirrel down eye to eye as i blindly tried to untie harper's leash. and yes, she's on a leash. which is why i needed to swoop in and save her. she had nowhere to run.

would you believe me if i told you that this dumb cat (sorry, dan) hissed at me, her hero? that she was royally pissed that i was bringing her inside, away from the vicious, hungry squirrel? (i tried to tell her what was happening, but i don't speak cat). IS SHE NUTS? ;) (evidently the squirrel thought she was).

she's still mad at me as i type this, but i don't care. she's alive, and she should be grateful that she's alive. (you're welcome, harper).

all kidding aside, this got me thinking.

how many times have i thrown a hissy fit at God (or my parents or anyone else who loves me) for protecting me from something i couldn't see? a toxic job or disastrous relationship? exciting plans that fell through because i was needed somewhere else (i had planned to be in cuba the week my mom passed away) or because what i was about to get involved in (or with) wasn't God's best for me? you name it. (insert anything else you can think of here).

but as i was reminded of today, sometimes, just sometimes, there's a squirrel in the tree that you can't see.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

i started my new role as the community dinner co-ordinator at the church in regent park on Saturday and my heart could not be more full.

some would say that this has been in the making since i started volunteering back in November, but for me, it started a lot sooner than that. i can't help but reflect and see how God has had His hand in my life long before pastor jake (who, by the way, i am very grateful for) ever resigned.

in 2011, i was in a van full of people touring the ins and outs of Toronto when we came to regent park. I don't know whether it was the poverty I saw, the stories I heard, or the hope the people driving the van had for this community, but something stuck out to me about this place and only grew from there as I spent some time hanging out there with the salvation army that summer.

fast forward to the summer of 2016 when I couldn't get regent park out of my mind. unbeknownst to me at the time, a few months later i would end up reconnecting with a friend, who, just so happened to have just planted a church in regent park. i showed up a few weeks later to check things out and the rest is history.

i'm so thankful for this job, the incredible people i get to work with, and the community i get to serve, and am looking forward to loving, and learning, and growing as i serve in this capacity.

[part two : mcdonalds]

happy to report that as of today, i have been promoted to the 'guest experience leader champion' (how's that for a job title?), a new role that is being introduced to mcdonalds this week. i have a conference call with head office tonight at five to go over my new job description, but the jist of it is this: i'll in charge of training, coaching, and motivating all of the GELS in my store and responsible for making sure our surveys are being handed out and that our scores remain high.

i'm thankful for this job, too; for my understanding and flexible bosses, and the top notch crew that i get to work with!

[part three: youth unlimited]

my supervisor is having a baby in a few weeks and so i had the honor of helping her lead a team of youth from scarborough at the beginning of august so that i would know what i was doing when she goes on mat leave.

we led them through a poverty meal (which i blogged about previously), a street walk (which i didn't) and served alongside of them at a great place that provides meal for the poor downtown Toronto.

i walked away from that day and a half even more convinced that i was born for this.

here's the clincher, though.

youth unlimited requires me to fundraise my own salary and I cant do it without YOU.

at this stage, i'm getting paid minimum wage for up to ten hours a week for fundraising (usually ends up being about five hours a week with my schedule being the way it is), and am not able to work at my target 20 hours/week (which will be salaried income at the point) until i reach 40% of my target goal.

right now i am sitting at 17% (which i am so so so thankful for), but i did the math this morning which leaves me $1100 short/month.

if i break that down, that means i would need:

110 people to commit to $10/month
55 people to commit to $20/month
22 people to commit to $50/month
11 people to commit to $100 month

... and so forth.

i know this is a lot to ask - i barely make ends meet some weeks myself - but if you are interested in being part of a really great non profit/ministry (and a part of my kickin team), i humbly invite you to do so.

you can write cheques (do they still exist?!), call our office, or donate through Canada helps [canadahelps.org - search youth unlimited (toronto YFC) - scroll down to donate monthly (or donate now) and under "apply your donation to a specific fund set up by this charity", click my name (number 09)] and BOOM - you're not only helping me, but you're helping youth, those on the margins of society, and the organizations downtown Toronto that are making a difference every single day!

want to grab a coffee and talk further? holla for paula. i'd be happy to make time for you.

ps. pastors, youth pastors, and leaders, i'm also available to come and speak to your church or youth about urban ministry/hang out/whatever you need me to do. just say the word! (feel free to spread the word, too). thanks, peeps! :)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

i was standing at the bus stop minding my own business when an elderly man approached me.

"excuse me, miss" he said, followed by his toothless grin. "do you have a loonie so i can buy a soda? i found this food around the corner and i would love a pop to wash it down with".

i couldn't help by stare at his dirty, half-eaten container of food.

"i sure do", i said. (i don't always have money to give them, but i happened to that day).

he vanished into the convenience store behind me as quickly as i pulled the loonie out of my pocket.

a few minutes later, he ran up to me an extra skip in his step. "thank you, thank you, thank you" he said with the same toothless grin that blessed my heart the first time. i, too, couldn't help but smile.

you see, he asked for a dollar for a pop - and get this - he bought a pop.

not all panhandlers spend their money on alcohol and drugs, and this is just one story out of many where i have seen this firsthand.

but, let me pose a question here - so what if they do?

don't we use drugs, alcohol, sex, netflix, food (enter anything else here) to cope with our pain? how can we expect anything less from them?

and better yet, does our responsibility lay within our willingness to give when we're able to, or in how they spend the change we place in their cups? (because if that's the case, we should probably stop tipping our servers at the restaurants we go to because a lot of their tips go right back to the bar after work).

addictions are real things, sure. and a small percentage of people are on the streets because of theirs. i get it. (but even still)

but not all are.

some are there because they fled from a level of abuse that i can't comprehend and their alternative is worse. others, because their job got outsourced and they couldn't find another. some because of mental illness, and others because of the family/societal structure they were born into and they can't seem to break the cycle. it's hard to break a cycle, after all.

now, let it be said that i can't possibly (and don't) give to every single panhandler i see on the street, and i'm not asking you to, either. all i'm asking is that you - we - challenge ourselves to break down the preconceived ideas and judgements that we have about why they're there and what 'they will do with the money we give them' and extend a little grace to a fellow human in need. if you have an extra loonie floating around, say hi and hand it to them, and if you don't, make eye contact and say hi any way.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

her body lie face down in the small space between the toilet and the wall where she strategically placed herself in hopes that no one would notice her. on the change table above her lay 3/4 of a bottle of vodka, house keys, and a ball cap, and on the floor directly below that, her cell phone, which, as we could tell from looking at her lock screen, was being blown up with phone calls and texts from her concerned parents and friends.

it took me all of two seconds to realize what was happening here; this young girl - no older than 19 - tried to end her life in a stall where i work, and my heart sank as low as the ground she placed herself on as i watched two of my managers try to wake her up.

thankfully, thanks to a concerned customer, quick thinking staff, and educated paramedics, there was a happy ending this particular story, but that isn't always the case.

according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages 10 and 24 and accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds in our nation.

that's twenty-four percent too many.

i remember the pressures that came with being a teenager quite well. the longing to fit in and peer pressure and depression. the pressures of balancing homework and a social life, and let's not even mention the infamous 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' question that had the ability to send you into panic mode.

and yet, youth have it much harder now than i ever did. the pressure to fit in has increased tenfold. drugs and alcohol are more accessible than ever before. the pressures of being in a relationship has changed, and social media, quite frankly, has changed everything; the amount of followers you have (as well as the amount of likes you get) is what determines your worth.

it doesn't, of course, but that's what they believe.

for over 65 years, Youth Unlimited has been imparting God’s love, truth, and hope to young people from all walks of life regardless of race, faith, economic levels, or cultural background.

we believe that an individual’s life is shaped by a number of facets that influence who they are as a whole: physical, emotional, spiritual, social and intellectual, and aim to develop each of these areas through relationships so that every youth may reach their full potential, and i get to be a part of this exciting organization as the project serve toronto program lead.

for those of you who don't know, we, at project Serve, organize and facilitate local and international service projects, providing youth with a life-changing experience as they encounter and serve those living on the margins of their communities. here, we provide pre-project training that is designed to enrich students’ understanding of poverty and injustice, as well as introduce them to the culture in which they will be immersed. through their experience with project serve, youth will be inspired to find ways to serve as catalysts for change in their own community when they return home.

our vision? transformed youth transforming their city.

i wholeheartedly believe that the few things that helped me get through my teenage years (mentorship (someone who believed in me) and opportunities to give back) can help the youth of today, too, and i believe that it's my duty to give back myself and do what i can to help them navigate their way through this difficult season of their life.

but, i cant do this alone.

youth unlimited requires each of their staff to fundraise their salary - something, i'll have you know, i am very uncomfortable with - and as i type this, i am sitting at the 13% mark (and grateful for every single penny, and every single ounce of encouragement and support behind it!), but i cant start working at full capacity until i reach 40%.

Would YOU consider being an integral part of my team by supporting me prayerfully and/or financially? would you consider praying for me continually? sending a cheque (what are we? 85?), arranging direct deposit, making a quick phone call into out office or donating online at www.canadahelps.org? (search for Youth Unlimited (Toronto YFC) and then click my name when it asks if you want to "Apply your donation to a specific fund"). all donations are tax receiptable.

of course, if you have any questions about the above, youth unlimited, or my role in it, i would be happy to arrange a skype or phone call, or even better, a coffee or lunch date. as busy as i am, my calendar will always make room for YOU.

whether you are able to give or not (i know how difficult it can to be able to make ends meet), let's do what we can to help the young people of today feel valued and accepted, because, one, they are, and two, the world will be a much better place when they believe it!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

fall is my favourite.

the pretty colours and crisp air. thanksgiving. pumpkin spice lattes. (my mouth is watering just thinking about it.)

of course, there's a freshness to this time of year, too. for some, the start of a new school year. for others, a fresh start and new beginning, and for me, a time to step into my new role at the church in regent park.

come on a quick trip to the past with me to the summer of 2011. i was amidst a car full of people participating in a tour of toronto when we drove through regent park, toronto's oldest public housing project. known mostly for poverty and crime (especially) back then, i was intrigued, and thanks to the salvation army, i was able to get to know that community a bit better that summer.

but, even still, i never expected to play a small role in seeing it develop years later. (what you are a part of is always bigger than the role you play.)

now fast forward to the summer of 2016. i don't know how to say this other than the way i am about to say it, but i couldn't, for the life of me, get regent park out of my heart; i kept thinking about it and praying about it, reading up on it and brainstorming ways in which i could get involved it the community there somehow.

a few months later, i reconnected with an old friend, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, just so happened to be a part of a church plant there!

needless to say, a few weeks later, i headed to Toronto to check things out.

i remember walking into the community centre for the first time as if it were yesterday. there, hundreds of people were seated (and in line) for a home cooked meal, and some, for clothes.

i was directed to pastor jake, the community dinner leader, and got to learn about his heart for the community. i met countless others, too, who have lived there and/or have been coming to the dinners for quite some time. so many people. so many stories.

i looked around and saw people of different cultures and race, backgrounds and class.

in one chair, a new immigrant sat. in another, a woman born in toronto.

some had jobs, others didn't.

one man wore a dress shirt. another, a ripped (or shall i say 'holy?) one.

and my absolute fave, an intoxicated man sitting at the back of the voluntary post-dinner service who decided to stand up in the middle of the message and serenade us with the best rendition of O Canada that i've heard in a very long time.

but here's what stood out to me the most.

the pastor (my friend i mentioned above) didn't try and stop him and neither did anyone else; this particular anthem singer, hilarious 'interruption' and all, was welcome at the church in regent park. i was welcome at the church of regent park, and it took me all of five minutes to see how well i fit in there and how quickly i felt at ... home.

nine months later, i can honestly say that my heart has only grown bigger and bigger and more in love with regent park. what started with a small seed being planted in my heart during a tour of toronto in the summer of 2011 has blossomed into so much more, only i was oblivious to just how significant this very seed was back then.

you see, a few weeks a go, pastor jake announced his resignation as the community dinner co-ordinator and i was asked to fill the position.

i am both excited and honoured to report that as of september 16th, i will be giving leadership to the several churches and volunteers who so generously give of their time each week to make sure that that our friends in regent park are fed physically, emotionally and spiritually, as well as leading a mid-week life group in the core of their community starting a week later.

so ... here's to a new season, friends. a season of purpose and growth, full hearts and rich (in the best way possible) lives. the best is yet to come!

ps. for those of you asking, i still hold both my 'project serve Toronto team lead' position with youth unlimited (still in the fundraising stage - more on that later) and my guest experience leader role with mcdonalds here in brampton, which i plan on keeping until i move closer to regent park.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

picture this.

you and your friends are sitting at the dinner table enjoying a full course meal. caesar salad with all the fixings. pasta oozing with sauce that has been simmered for the perfect amount of time. succulent garlic bread. and warm (yes, warm) cookies and ice cream to top it all off.

but, there's a catch.

on the floor next to you is another group of people. they're eating dinner, too. only they're not eating a full course meal; they're eating half a bowl of rice with their hands, and washing it down with a cup of tap water.

seems weird, doesn't it? that you would be sitting at a table eating a home cooked meal while others are sitting on the floor next to you eating rice?

welcome to the poverty meal; an activity that my co-leader and i ran last week with a group of students from scarborough.

even though i was considered 'rich' that night (a meal i couldn't seem to enjoy, by the way), the debrief was hard for me. listening to how the group felt sitting on the floor, eating rice, and even worse than that, the divide they felt because of some of our comments (the other leader and i were told to say certain things, though we got carried away). it was hard to see that their feelings were hurt. in fact, it angered me. it angered me that i have plenty (something i am equally as grateful for) and that others don't.

sure, it was only an activity - the ones who pulled a 'P' out of the hat got to go back to eating whatever they wanted the next day - but for some, this isn't an activity, it's their reality.

even still, i've thought about this meal every time i have eaten since. it's helped me portion my food better, think about the money i spend on it, and caused me to feel sick to my stomach when i threw half of my meal away the other day because i was full and it wasn't 'saveable'.

i have more questions than answers as i type this.

is educating youth about poverty through youth unlimited or handing out water through operation hydration enough? is helping run a community dinner every Saturday in regent park helping? will a bridge between the rich and the poor ever be built like i believe God intended? and the biggest question of all, what more can i do?

admittedly, i've become numb to a lot of things happening in the world today. ashamedly, most things don't affect me or surprise me as i scroll my twitter feed anymore.

the event in Charlottesville, however, was different. i felt angry and heavy hearted, and still do.

but again, what can i do? is posting a facebook status necessary or even helpful? is doing a heart check and making sure i hold no prejudice of my own, along with praying or promoting peace and inclusivity in my own life, enough?

truthfully, i'm at a loss for words (and actions).

what can i do? what can we do?

Monday, July 31, 2017

i had my saturday morning all mapped out. like literally. with bus routes and everything.

only, things didn't go as i planned.

i headed to main and bovaird to get my housemate (well, us) some of our favourite coffee when i noticed a first choice there. (getting my hair cut was on my agenda any ways, only i was unaware of this very particular location at the time).

now, let it be said that i loathe small talk. especially when it involves me sitting in a hairdresser's chair with no escape route. (and when the other party is holding me hostage with a sharp object or talking through an extremely hot blow dryer).

only, this time was different.

angela, though well in her fifties, decided to quit her job at first choice and 'try something new'. she is heading to sri lanka for a few months as i type this, and then returning home to do just that.

"it's never too late for change", she said.

she wasn't only inspirational and wise, but warm and kind, too. once in a while she'd stop cutting my hair long enough to compassionately place her hand on my shoulder as she spoke. i knew in those moments especially that i had landed in the right chair.

a friend actually gave me the money to get my haircut (either i have great friends or my hair was an embarrassment to them) so i tipped her nicely and wished her well before leaving her soon to be old workplace with an extra skip in my step. "it's never too late for change", i thought as i carried on with my day. ('coincidentally', my friends and i had a similar conversation later that day, too).

rewind to the previous day when my coworker preached right at me in the staff room. and by preached at me i mean that she very gently spoke straight to my heart about not settling at my minimum wage job and 'using my gifts and capabilities to dream big'.

dreaming big requires change, and like i was reminded of this past weekend, it's not too late for either.

thanks, ladies.

"the heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (proverbs 16:9).

Sunday, July 30, 2017

there's a hole in my heart, you see
but you cant see it when you look at me
because it's hidden down deep,
except when it surfaces with the occasional bleed.

the same can be said about you, i know.
because something along the way wounded you, too.
some days, you forget about it
but other days, it consumes you.

so if this is true,
why are you not more kind to me, and me to you?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

they say the way into a man's heart is through his belly.

well, i've recently learned that making your way into a youth's heart is through a jr. chicken.

as mentioned in my previous blog post, i had been wrestling with finding balance between 'disciplining' certain kids that come into my work, and extending grace. i've since adjusted my approach, changed my way of thinking, and started praying for ways in which to connect with them.

as i was praying one day, i pictured myself placing a tray of jr. chickens in front of them and letting them know how much i believe in them.

but where do i start, and who do i buy jr. chickens for, i wondered? (i am not rich).

the other day, a kid came up to me, asked me if i was a manager. after telling him that my job description was "to connect with people and make them happy", asked me if i would buy him a jr. chicken. like who says that?! (if that wasn't a sign, i don't know what is).

i bought four. one for him, and one for each of his friends. they were ecstatic! i told them i believed in them as i set the tray down like i had envisioned, but truthfully, i don't even know if they heard me through all of their thank yous.

i walked away feeling really encouraged and excited about life. i know that God doesn't answer every prayer (not with a yes any way), but is it ever fun when you see such a clear answer to one.

or two.

before i go into work each day, i pray that i would connect with the right people, that God would show me who needs encouragement, or a good laugh, and who needs to be left alone. (i can usually figure out the latter myself LOL).

last week, i prayed just that (and that God would start opening up doors for me to able to use one of the gifts he's given me: public speaking).

the next morning, as mentioned in one of my most recent facebook statuses, a young gentleman came up to me and asked me if i would come to the group he runs on sundays (which turned out to be a great church) and share the importance of being welcoming with his group. again, knowing what i have been praying just the night before, i couldn't help but chuckle.

this past sunday, he arranged a ride for me. (we don't waste time). turns out i knew the two girls who picked me up, too. one is an uber eats driver who frequents my work, and the other, the daughter of a mom i used to have tea with every Monday when i lived across the street from her. it's a small world, after all. (is that song stuck in your head now? - you're welcome).

i'm not sure where this whole opportunity will lead, but i do know that i felt encouraged when i left there on sunday, made some great connections, and got a job offer worth considering.

speaking of job offers, i have a really exciting announcement to make butttttt you'll have to wait for a few weeks to hear it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

there's a fine line between discipline and grace.

before working at a youth homeless shelter in edmonton, i was all about the grace. who cares if 'they' break the rules? they need love!

but now, it seems as though i've made my way on over to team discipline.

there's a group of youth (two main ones, actually) who come into work all the time and cause a ruckus. and by ruckus i mean acting like they own the place; cussing at high decibels while there's kids around, opening packages of sweet and sour sauce just to flip them upside on our furniture, throwing garbage at each other and soda at other guests. (true story). most wont even acknowledge me when i say hi, and 99.9% of them leave their garbage on or under their tables, and truthfully, I WANT TO SNAP EVERY SINGLE TIME.

but i don't. because i'd lose my job. and even worse than that, i'd be adding my name to the list of people who act on the frustration they feel towards (some of) 'the next generation', and truth be told, i don't want to be on that list.

i do, however, want to be on a different list; a list of leaders who have an unshakeable belief in a young person's potential no matter how poorly they act, and a list of adults and mentors who extend grace when they do.

is discipline necessary? absolutely. should a student (or anyone, really) be kicked out of an establishment for being disrespectful? for sure. but should they be blacklisted? i don't think so.

of course, this whole thought process stems from a few events that happened at work this week.

a few of 'these' kids came in the other day, and truthfully, as soon as i saw one of them, i wanted to do everything i could to 'make sure that he paid' for the mess he left the day before. (and by make him pay, i mean keep my eye on him and make sure he cleaned up his mess today). within minutes, he and his friends were throwing pop bottle lids at the tables next to them. seeing this, i approached them calmly and asked them to stop. a few minutes later, i see another lid fly by. this time, a lady got up to address them as i gave them a look. then boom - another lid. LIKE HOW MANY POP LIDS SO THESE KIDS HAVE. WE DON'T EVEN SELL POP BOTTLES. i went over there and gave it to them. (and by gave it to them i mean raised my voice a little and told them that if i have to kick them out they're never coming back on my shift). "miss, it wasn't me", one said, as he pointed to his friend who nodded his head as if it weren't him either. "i don't care which one of you it was", i said, before giving them a speech about being associated with who they hang out with. i walked away feeling good (and powerful). I'MA SHOW YOU WHO'S BOSS.

later on, however, i felt like a tool. not because i stopped them from throwing lids around or gave them a heartfelt pep talk, but because i said that they wouldn't be welcome back if i had to ask them to leave that day, because, well, there's a fine line between discipline and grace.

another group of students came in shortly after, and i decided to take a different approach - a proactive approach - and it worked. (sometimes the best thing to do isn't to try harder, but to try different).

later that day, another group came in - hung out long enough to make a huge mess and proceeded to leave it behind - until one of the girls made eye contact with me and very quickly went back to the table to clean it up. "thank you", i said in front of her friends when they came back and asked why she was 'doing that'. "you give me hope for young people today", i said, (or something just as cheesy), while looking her right in the eye. later that night, she came back, smiled at me and gave me a high-five, and you know something, that felt way better than telling the other ones that they'd have to throw their lids around elsewhere.

as for me, i'm working on my balancing act and trying to get better at this every single day by reminding myself that behind the inappropriate behaviour lies a big fat why. (there's always a why).

truth be told, at the end of the day, discipline is necessary, but grace is life-changing. (i know this because it changed mine).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

what if i told you that $20 a month (or less/more) could help in three significant ways?

well, it can.

a monthly (or one time) donation will:

1. help invest in youth and help inspire them give back to their communities.
2. help breakdown the stigma attached to homelessness.
3. help me do what i was put on earth to do.

a few months ago, i was hired on as the project serve toronto program lead with youth unlimited, an organization that has been investing in youth across north america for over 65 years now. one of the (many) unique things about youth unlimited is that each staff member is required to raise their own salary. (and can't work at all until they reach a certain percentage of it).

now, let it be said that i struggled with this at the beginning (and still do some days if i'm being honest), but have since changed my mindset about such a process. i am not begging for money, i am merely inviting you to be a part of my team.

let it also be said that i can't even escape a grocery store without a cashier asking me if i would like to donate to such and such a cause, or hit the corners of downtown brampton without some overly eager young person putting a picture of a cute orphan in my face. i realize that there is great need everywhere, and we can't give to every cause and every one. (this has been true in my own life).

but, for those of you who have a heart for youth, those stricken with poverty, or just plain love me (a lot), i have included a little more detail about my position and what led up to it in bold below:

The whole trajectory of my life changed that day.

Here I was sitting in a homeless shelter with a 45 year old man named Cecil and a middle-class teenager from Wichita, Kansas. At first, we did what any strangers would do - we made small talk about sports and the weather - but minutes later, the conversation shifted when I asked him about the tattoo on his neck. "That was the year my wife was born, and this”, he said as he choked up, “was the year she passed away”. He spent the next few minutes reliving the dreadful day where his life changed forever because of a tragic car accident.

Like many others, Cecil found comfort in the form of a bottle. In an attempt to numb his unimaginable pain, he eventually spiraled, losing his job, his kids, and lastly, his house, causing him to become yet another ‘invisible fixture’ on the city's cold and lonely sidewalk.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ashlea had lost her Dad in a tragic motorcycle accident only eight months prior, which enabled her to connect with Cecil’s heartache in a way in which I was unable to do at the time. Needless to say, both of them left feeling a little less lonely that day, and I left changed.

You see, I’ve always known that I was called to mentor youth, and ever since an internship in Vancouver in 2003 (and several jobs within the social sector since), I’ve been determined to do what I can to break down the stigma attached to homelessness, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to connect the two until that particular morning; The connection I witnessed between my two favourite people groups that day gave my dreams a face. I have been on (and have led many) of these trips since and have seen firsthand how life-changing they can be for all of those involved, especially the youth.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year when I came across an opening for Project Serve’s Toronto Program Lead Position with Youth Unlimited/Toronto Youth for Christ. I just about jumped out of my skin when I read the following blurb:

“Project Serve organizes and facilitates local and international service projects that educate and equip young people to love and serve God and others. Through pre-trip meetings and practical volunteer opportunities, young people are exposed to the realities of poverty and injustice and are encouraged to face these issues head on” ... and I, as the Program Lead for Toronto, get to spearhead these connections!

I’m super excited to be able to invest in the next generation, to serve alongside them in various organizations downtown Toronto, to help them process all that they’re seeing and feeling, and to help them bridge the gap between what they learned during their trip and what that looks like for them when they return to their own communities.

But, I can’t do this alone.

Would you consider being an integral part of my team by supporting me prayerfully and/or financially?

would you? would you consider praying for me continually? sending a cheque (what are we? 85?), arranging direct deposit, making a quick phone call or donating online at www.canadahelps.org? (search for Youth Unlimited (Toronto YFC) and then click my name when it asks if you want to "Apply your donation to a specific fund").

have questions about the above, youth unlimited, or my role in it? great! want to arrange a skype or phone call, coffee or lunch date? even better! my calendar has room for YOU.

ps. all donations are tax receiptable.
pps. there are perks to being on my team ;)

Monday, June 5, 2017

"we assume life will go a certain way, and then it doesn't ... and we find ourselves in a place we never would have imagined on our own. and so it was difficult, and unexpected, and maybe even tragic, and yet it opened us up and freed us to see things in a whole new way. suffering does that; it hurts, but it also creates".

suffering creates.

a few months a go, i spent the night in a waiting room in a hospital in london as my sister-in-law was giving birth to my beautiful niece, arloh. i won't go into detail - it's not my story to tell - but they (we) had a huge scare throughout the delivery process to the point where my brother wondered whether or not he was going to walk out of there a single dad, and yet, within weeks, my sister-in law was already talking about having another one. anticipating the result of her pain and suffering (her beautiful daughter) and the love she already had for her caused her to keep going and to keep pushing. suffering creates strength and perseverance.

there are days when i wish i never knew what it was like to wrestle with depression for half of my life, days when i wish i didn't feel this unshakeable loneliness, and days when i would trade anything (and i mean anything) in for the chance to hug my beautiful parents once again.

but here's the clincher. in hindsight, all of the above has made me a better sister, friend, youth worker, and person, period. because of the things i've been through in life, i'm able to connect with people on a deeper level; i'm a better listener and helper, i'm much more compassionate, and i know what to say (most of the time) and what not to say. suffering equips.

but most of all, suffering can develop a deeper appreciation for life.

i can honestly say that i'm the happiest, most at peace, and most content that i have ever been in my entire life. my parents gave me the gift of life, but in their death they gave me the greatest gift of all: a desire to live mine to its full.

the key, i find, is to be able to find a healthy balance between dwelling/processing/feeling, and choosing to get up and enjoy your life any ways.

do i let myself process the reasons i feel sad/depressed/stressed (enter any other emotion you feel here) and let myself feel it at times? absolutely (our feelings are valid and often point to something deeper), but do i let them paralyze me and stop me from living my life? not a chance. on these (very rare) days, i let myself feel what i need to feel for a short while and then i force myself to get up and do things that bring me life. go for a walk. spend time in chapters. watch a ball game. send an encouraging email or text. fly a plane. you name it.

and you know something? it works!

why? because suffering creates.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

if you know me well enough, or have read any of my previous blogs, you'd know that i've struggled with mental illness most of my life. (you would also know that i have worked my tail off to combat it, and that, thankfully, i've been pretty successful at doing so).

but sometimes, even now, depression and anxiety have their way of rearing their ugly head, like they have off and on for me the past few weeks.

perhaps it's because mother's day and my dad's birthday fell on the same week, and even though i distracted myself enough during both (and tried my utmost to celebrate them any ways), the underlining sadness i felt was unavoidable.

or maybe it's because i've been feeling really lonely lately, overly busy (to no fault but my own), and quite depleted as a result, i don't know.

but what i do know is that i've been able to get out of bed each morning and do my best to do what i have to do to get through the day, which is more than i could say years a go.

some days required a few extra deep breaths, some self-talk, and a lot of grace, but most days, it took me being intentional about looking past my own feelings and circumstances and doing what i could to ease someone else's.

truth be told, for one, life is hard and we really don't know what anyone else is carrying, and two, when it comes down to it, we can let our pain cripple us, or we can let it fuel us.

i write on tim's cups because i know how much weight the words we speak hold and how much of a difference a two minute (or even less) interaction at a coffee shop in a hospital can make. (i spent a lot of time in the hospital with both of my parents).

i make people laugh at mcdonalds because i know that laughter is distracting and healing.

i reach out in a practical manner when someone loses a parent (or anyone else for that matter) because i know what loss feels like.

i make a point of talking to people on the street because i know what it feels likes to be overlooked at times.

i spread kindness because it's rare and powerful.

i listen because i know how rare that is, too.

but i wouldn't be able to do any of the above if i hadn't walked through what i have walked through in life and refused/refuse to let it cripple me.

the truth is, our pain will not only provide the fuel we need to connect to others in theirs if we let it, but it can also help us find some purpose in our own.

how can you use YOUR pain for good today?

Monday, April 24, 2017

project serve toronto team lead slash fundraiser. guest experience leader. barista. volunteer. leader. friend. sister. aunt. roommate. these are the hats that i wear on any given day.(though i do my best to make sure that none of these hats define me, because they don't. and neither do yours).

it isn't uncommon for someone to ask me how i have so much energy, or if 'i'm always like this', in fact, a handful of people ask me this each week during my overnight shift at sick kids alone. and the answer to that question is no, no i'm not always 'like this'; i can be really, really, moody on mondays.

monday is my catch up on sleep (and sometimes TV) day. i often feel worn out and am not always pleasant. i hibernate, rarely make plans, and talk to a minimal amount of people. and sometimes, i even blog. I DO WHATEVER I WANT TO DO, because, well, it's PAULAday, and PAULAdays are crucial for my survival (and for my relationships).

if there is one thing i have learned through my parents' passing, it's this: life is fragile and is meant to be lived to its full (and we can't live life to its full if we're not taking care of ourselves in the midst of its crazy demands).

in the spirit of 'do whatever i want to do mondays', here are just a few things i do to take care of myself:

1. as mentioned above, i have a 'me' day once a week, which helps me focus, rejuvenate, and keeps me (relatively) sane.

2. i do things that i enjoy; i sit in coffee shops and read or write, and i watch baseball. religiously.

3. i keep my bucket list up to date (to ensure that i don't kick the bucket quite yet) and try new things, like exploring a new city or restaurant, or flying an airplane.

4. i eat fruits and vegetables like they're going out of style (or at least going bad), and drink a lot of H to the O.

5. i surround myself with really good people.

6. i encourage others, practice hospitality, and 'give back' to my community, which proves to be more life-giving than anything else on this list.

except for #7, that is: nurturing my relationship with Christ. i study the Bible, sing my little heart out, and keep the communication lines open, which in my opinion is the most important one of all, because, well, without number seven, numbers one to six wouldn't be nearly as fruitful.

what do you do to take care of YOU?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

i closed my eyes and saw a tree; a big, beautiful, and full tree. only this wasn't just any tree. this particular tree symbolized something.

the trunk represented the pain i was feeling at the time, having just found that my mom was going to lose her battle with cancer.

the branches represented my thought process through it all; the fear, the worry, the what ifs, the compassion i felt towards my mom, and the unfillable void i knew i would feel once she passed away.

and yet, my eyes were drawn to the roots.

at first glance, i saw the strong and unshakeable root from which i draw life and strength from: my relationship with Jesus, my anchor, the One who keeps me going in life, and keeps me grounded.

upon my second glance, i saw the few (unhealthy) things which i let take root in my life; seeds of insecurity that derived from my life-long battle with depression, my fear of abandonment, and the most crippling one of all, my unrealistic expectation of others.

and here's what all of this taught me.

there's a time to focus on our pain and a time process what we're feeling and experiencing because of it, but there's also a time for uprooting, because, well, no matter what your source of pain is at any given time, each root has its way of breaking through the soil and rearing its ugly head in the most inconvenient and unattractive way.

but how do i start digging, i wondered? and how do you?

by picking up the tools - in this case, a shovel - and putting in the work.

for me that meant finding a good counselor, retraining my brain to focus on the positive, saturating myself in the truth, reminding myself that people can only do so much, acting accordingly, and praying (a lot) to the One who can reach even the deepest part of pain, loves me even at my worst, and promises to never leave me nor forsake me.

and you know something? though it took a lot of hard work (and still requires work to this day), i really dig this whole digging thing, because it works!

i expect less from my friends, i no longer live in fear that people will leave me, and thankfully, even though my depression episodes are less frequent and less intense these days, i've come to accept the fact that this, too, is part of my journey.

today, a beautiful tree sits on the dresser in my room as a reminder of my healing process, the time i closed my eyes and first saw the tree and what each part of it represented, and all of the work i have had to put in to become a healthier me. only now when i look at this tree, i don't just see a big, beautiful, and full tree, i see a big, beautiful, and full life, and a heck of a lot of growth.

Monday, February 27, 2017

i don't have a stable career, or a house of my own. i don't have a car or even my license [which is on my bucket list this year], a full bank account or even a lot of spending money. i don't have a husband, any kids, or a golden retriever, either.

but i do have a roof over my head, a TV to watch my blue jays on [priorities, people], food in my belly, an understanding housemate, a great church, people who love and adore me, and so much more.

now, let me ask you this, which list did you prefer to read? the 'i don't' list, or the 'i do' one?

the i do one, obviously. and truth be told, i preferred writing it.

the i don't list made me feel ungrateful, worried, and sad.

the i do list, however, made me feel happy, confident, and rich.

so why do i spend time thinking about my dont's? why do you?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

i'm a christian, but i've been hurt by the church.

i watched as what i call an 'extreme christian' prevent my dad from ever entering a church again by showing up at our house, speaking out of turn, and scaring him off.

i witnessed church leadership call my brother a loser for rollerblading to the service, followed by weeks of verbal abuse, to the point where he never rollerbladed to the church again, or accepted a ride, either, and still hasn't over two decades later.

i had one lady 'rebuke me' [whatever that means] because she heard i 'swore at school', people judge me or the choices i made, others take advantage of me, some backstab me, a few overlook me, and a heck of a lot of people fail to follow through with their promise or commitment.

maybe you've been here, too. maybe, you, like me, thought [or think] that 'church is full of a bunch of judgemental hypocrites'.

truthfully, it took me a long time to get over all of these things. a really long time, actually.

in fact, for a year and a half, i built a wall around my heart in the name of protection and stopped going to church because of it. i knew my life was lacking something - i really did - but the risk of going back seemed too great; the less hypocrites i had in my life, the better.

but all of this changed when i stepped foot into the church in regent park a few short months a go.

i looked around and saw people of different cultures and race, backgrounds and class.

in one chair, a new immigrant sits. in another, a woman born in toronto.

one person has a job, another doesn't.

one man wears a dress shirt, another, a ripped - or shall i say 'holy' - one.

and my absolute fave, an intoxicated man sitting at the back, who decides to stand up in the middle of the sermon and serenade us with the best rendition of O Canada that i've heard in a very long time.

but get this - the pastor doesn't stop to yell at him. no usher ushers him out; he is welcome at the church in regent park. i am welcome at the church of regent park, and it took me all of five seconds to see how well i fit here.

i missed three weeks last month due to travel, sickness, and financial reasons, and i had countless people tell me they 'missed me the past three weeks'. like they noticed how many weeks i was gone, and missed me.

leadership thank me for coming and serving every single chance they get.

one girl, whom i just connected with this week, gave me enough cash to cover my transit next weekend to ensure that i wouldn't miss another week of church.

my pastors [who are also my dear friends] make me want to know christ more by the way they emulate him; they drive me to the GO station every week, hang out with me, and invest in me. even this weekend, we hung out for a few hours after church after they ever so kindly handed me a gift card to cover my groceries this week.

needless to say, i leave church feeling encouraged, supported, and closer to the reason we gather together every week, and hope that others leave the same way because of me.

all that to say this: christians are flawed [including me]; there will always be churches who 'don't get it' and people in each congregation [and everywhere, really] who say and do dumb things, but if we stick around long enough, we may just find treasures amidst them; treasures like those i have found in the church in regent park.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

i'm not a mac fan, i'm 'adele' fan [some of you will get that later], and here's just a few of the many reasons why.

a minute into her tribute to george michael, adele stopped live television like only adele can, and asked for a do-over. "i'm sorry for swearing", she said. "i'm sorry, but i can't mess this up for him. i just can't" as she motioned for the band to start again.

i don't know about you, but i could relate to her in that moment.

sure, i've never been asked to sing in someone's honour, and i certainly haven't stopped live television in the middle of the most watched award show on TV, but i have made mistakes before. many of them, in fact. and so have you.

sometimes, as adele reminded us last week, things don't go as rehearsed. sometimes, just sometimes, things get messy and we could use a do-over.

sometimes, we can all use a dose of humility, too.

imagine having adele's resume; a powerful voice. millions of songs and albums sold. the ability to pack venues. award after award, including five of them in one night, and the list goes on.

now imagine having enough humility to admit that even a dynamic resume doesn't prevent you from making a mistake, admitting it, and starting over on live television.

truth be told, most wouldn't have even noticed that her first time was a little rocky - not even george michael - but she did, and that was enough for her; she had to make things right.

and if that wasn't a big enough dose of humility for one night, she then 'pulled a kanye' on herself.

years a go, as taylor swift was accepting her award for best video, the infamous kanye west jumped up on stage and told the world in so many words that 'beyonce' should have won that award, causing a lot of controversy, and giving TSwift enough ammo to do what she does best: write another song about a guy who hurt her feelings. [i don't know much about her dating life, but what he did that night was horrible].

kanye wasn't there this year, but kanye didn't need to be; adele so humbly told the world herself that beyonce deserved at least one of the three grammys that she won over her, stating that beyonce's album lemonade was brilliant, and 'showed another side to her'.

and right before that, she honoured greg kurstin, the one who wrote 'hello', by letting him accept the grammy for album of the year since he was so rudely cut off during his thank you speech an award earlier. ironically, the writer of hello didn't have time to say hello here.

but, thanks to adele, he got a chance to later, and in doing so, they both said hello to two things that all of us ought to say hello to: humility and honour.

"do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" [philippians 2:3-4]

Monday, February 6, 2017

i had a few hours to kill before i had to [wanted to] serve dinner in regent park with my church. i had a book in my bag, as i often do, and truthfully, i just wanted to be able to sit in a coffee shop and read it more than anything. but where? tims is cheap, i thought, but it's not necessarily the best atmosphere to sit down, relax, and read a book in. second cup is hands down my fave when it comes to their coffee selection, but i didn't know of any close enough to my church and feared that i may get too caught up in my book to make it in time. there was, however, a starbucks close by, but i really had to think about whether or not i could justify spending money on a latte when i haven't been working, and so i just sat there contemplating what i was going to do when my bus reached the big city.

what seemed to be less than a minute later, my phone made a ding, informing me that i had received an email.

"adam gilfillan had given you the gift of starbucks", it read. i tell you no lies; as i was sitting on the bus wrestling with whether or not i could afford a coffee, my friend was sitting in ottawa emailing me a starbucks card.

God knows our thoughts, and cares about even the 'little' things in life.

a week a go, i was sitting on the couch feeling lonely - like the deep, unshakeable kind of lonely. most days, i can force myself to snap out of it and dwell on the things i have to be thankful for, but i found it especially hard to do so this particular day. i was thinking about how much i missed my parents and how not having them around made me an orphan [i put this word in on purpose - keep reading], how i'm not married and don't have kids, how many friends i've lost over the years due to my brokenness or due to the fact that people [and seasons] change, all of which have the ability to make you isolate yourself even further.

BUT

my phone dinged once again. only this time, it was a text from my friend kari that said, "i've got youtube videos playing in my office while i work. this one popped up and as she prophesied over loneliness, i felt like it's a word for you".

i opened the link she sent me and began to weep. at the 4 minute and 38 second mark, the singer, amanda cook, began singing "this is the year your loneliness ends" over and over, followed by - get this - "he sets the orphans in families", a word that had been playing in my head all day. after a few more bars, she began praying a powerful prayer that i believe was for me in that very moment, and i felt a peace come over me. [for those of you who understand the loneliness i'm talking about here, i've included the link at the bottom of my blog for you to copy and paste in hope that it will encourage you also].

God not only knows our thoughts, but He cares about the state of our hearts, too.

i had this excruciating earache this week, and because of my past experience with this, i was terrified to go to the doctors. the first time this happened, the doctor - i warn you, this may get gruesome - grabbed not one, but two sharp objects - broke the cyst in my ear, and spent the next few minutes draining it as my mom held my hand. i bled for hours.

the second time, the doctor used a needle. A NEEDLE. he jabbed that big up thing in my ear and suctioned all of the stuff - i'll say stuff here in case you're eating as you read this - out, and i squeezed my friend's hand so hard that she needed an xray before we left ;)

SO
MUCH
PAIN.

so you can appreciate how petrified i was to go to the doctors this time [and why i would consider an ear transplant if there were such a thing].

in that very moment - again, i tell you no lies - i get a message on twitter from a friend i've lost touch with over the years, asking for my phone number. i gave it to him, and seconds later, he sent me a text.

"God says ... do not be afraid".

I CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP, PEOPLE.

here i was, scared to death to get some huge needle stuck in my ear [and no hand to squeeze during it], and BOOM - another message.

needless to say, i jumped up right away while i had the courage, got dressed, and walked across the street to the walk in clinic, where a very hot [and i assume very rich] doctor looked into my ear, poked around a bit, whispered sweet nothings in my ear [at least i think he did, i couldn't really hear him], and prescribed me antibiotics. no sharp objects, no needle, nothing. just medicine.

do not be afraid.

i can't help but think about one of my favourite passages of scripture, psalm 139, as i sit here and reflect on the past few weeks:

you have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
you know when i sit and when i rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
you discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
[verses one through four].

he knew i was worrying about my finances when he put me on my friend's heart, he knew i was feeling lonely when my friend was listening to that song in her office that day, and how scared i was about going to the doctors last week when my friend sent me that text, and he knows which thoughts i'm wrestling with today, too.

as the above psalm clearly points out, he perceives our thoughts from afar!
our thoughts - not just mine, but yours, too!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2O5DbYppwk

Friday, February 3, 2017

twelve short months a go, i held my my mom's hand for the last time as her strong and courageous spirit departed from her cancer stricken body.

there were a lot of lasts that happened that day,
and a lot of firsts for me ever since;
365 days worth of firsts, to be exact.

the first time i woke up and realized she was gone.
her first birthday, a measly nine days later.
my first mother's day, thanksgiving, and christmas.
my first new years without a phone call from her at midnight.
the first time i wanted to call her, but couldn't.
the first time i really needed her.
the first time i was sick.

...and the list goes on.

suffice it to say, it's been a year of adjustment.

i once heard a grieving father draw a parallel between different weather patterns and the unpredictability of the grieving process, which resonated with me more than any other analogy i had heard before, or have heard since.

most days feel like winter, you see. you spend the little energy you have hoping for a snow day so you don't have to go outside and face the bitter cold. some days, you get your snow day; you cuddle up on the couch with some wine and a blanket, or, better yet, stay in bed, wrap yourself up in your covers, and distract yourself with some netflix.

but other days, you have no choice but to face the cold; you slowly get up, get dressed, shovel your driveway, scrape the ice off of your windshield, and face the day. the truth is, winter requires effort, and a whole lot of work.

but then there's the summer - the beaming hot sun and the pretty blue skies - both of which feel like a breath of fresh air to you, and something you don't take for granted.

these are the days where you jump out of bed, pack a lunch, and head to the beach with your friends. here, you tan, swim, laugh, and, maybe, if you're ambitious enough, throw a frisbee or two around.

but even on those days, the waves have their way of creeping up on you.

you notice a mother playing with her daughter. a friend says something that triggers you. your mind wanders during frisbee. whatever. SO MANY THINGS REMIND YOU OF HER.

and suddenly, right there in the sand, it feels like winter all over again.

the odd thing, though? as unpredictable as the waves can be, and as bitter as the winter can feel, you don't want a life free of either in fear that your memories will fade along with them.

the grief process is the weirdest thing! so is time; each day pulls me further and further away my mom's existence here on earth, yet has its way of gently pushing me closer to the hope i have of spending an eternity with her in heaven.

but for now, all i can do it try and keep my balance during the waves, do my best to brave the long winter months, and enjoy the sun when it decides to come out and shine.

miss you, mom. even though you're not with us anymore, you'll always be a part of my every day. xo

Thursday, February 2, 2017

a year a go yesterday, my gut told me that i needed to make my way to ottawa.

the next morning, i made the trek. little did i know at the time, my gut was right; the day i landed would turn out to be the last full day that my mom was alive.

below is a recount of that incredibly hard, yet beautiful day.

my sister picked me up at the airport with tear filled eyes. word had it that palliative care planned on taking my mom off of all of her meds [outside of morphine], and that mom, in her words, was out of it, and unresponsive.

driving there, i prepared for the worst.

those of you who know my mom won't be the least bit surprised when i tell you that she was waving at me as i walked into her hospital room a half an hour later.

"hi paula!" she said, with excitement.

all of a sudden i was having flashbacks of the time just before christmas when the doctors called us in to say goodbye to her for good. after an excruciating five hour drive, i arrived only to see my mom sitting up and smiling. "i refuse to die in december", she said, and she meant it.

but it was february now, and my mom wasn't doing well.

one of my sisters was flying in a few hours after me, and the other had a previously booked a tattoo appointment [which just so happened to be for my mom], so i had the chance to snag a little alone time in the meantime. she slept most of it, mind you, but i sat there holding her hand and letting her know how much i loved her. somewhere in there, i 'gave her permission' to go, assured her that i [we] would be okay [although i had to convince myself of the same thing], and let her know how proud i was of her, and of how well she fought.

moments later, she woke up gasping for air.

s-c-a-r-i-e-s-t moment of my life.

her hands clinched my chest as she took these long and drawn out gasps, and her eyes stared at me in fear, begging me to do something.

i yelled [in true paula fashion] for the nurse. my mom was suffocating - or at least felt like she was - and though somehow i was able to remain calm on the outside, i felt like i was, too.

what seemed like hours later, my mom was back to sleeping peacefully, and i was back to holding her hand.

fast forward to 9:30p.m.

the five of us were gathered around her bed when my mom woke up. she looked around, smiled, and grabbed all of our hands.

"there's so much castrucci love in this room", she said over and over before looking at her watch [which is something she had been doing consistently ever since my dad appeared in one of her dreams the night before].

i sat there soaking it all in, thanking God that i was there for that beautiful moment. so much castrucci love indeed.

little did i know, that was one of the last things my mom would ever say to me.

she died peacefully the next morning.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

some see the fact that i have experience, talent, and skill as a threat, others see it as being 'over qualified', but a good chunk of employers see the complete opposite. the latter immediately scroll to the education section of my resume and see that i don't have a degree, or any letters behind my name. i tell them that castrucci is long enough, but they don't buy it. instead, they move on to a more educated applicant.

the thing is, though i see the value in education, there are other ways to learn, too. life experience being the greatest teacher in my opinion, and i, for one, have a lot of that. [don't we all?].

i've applied to countless leadership roles in hospitals, coffee shops, book stores [who wouldn't want a discount?], airlines [see cover letter below], youth organizations, and the list goes on, but at this point i've only received two calls back. both, coincidentally, being in the youth department. my favourite.

i'm in the process of interviewing for a position that fits me 'to a T' - in fact, this very job description matches the non-profit that i've been working on creating. i filled out an application, sent my resume in along with the required five [yes, five] references, had a pre-interview coffee with the director, and am currently awaiting an email with the date of my upcoming two hour interview as i write this. things are looking good.

the other job i interviewed for was for a child and youth worker position in regent park, a community i feel 'called' to. i just, however, received a phone call moments a go letting me know that though she was 'certain the job was mine because i interviewed so well', she decided to give it an applicant who was, as she put it, 'more qualified than her'. she did, however, ask that i interview for a similar position that just opened up, but due to the fact that it starts at the end of march, i kindly turned her offer down. i have a lot of bills to pay in between now and then.

that being said, i have a lot of time on my hands, and maybe you don't. need help around the house? babysitting? painting? writing? speaking? want me to entertain you? holla for paula. i'll even give you a discount - if you're lucky ;)[i'm also happy to help you out for free if you need that, too].

now if you'll excuse me, i should make like a basketball and bounce, but before you do the same, enjoy this very clever [and humorous] cover letter i wrote a few weeks a go:

Hey West Jet!

I've been on 68 flights in the past decade - not including the perfectly good one I jumped out of last summer - and I must say, West Jet is hands down my favourite Airline to fly with, and one that I would be honored to work alongside.

I also, as you may have noticed, get bored on flights and deem 'counting how many flights I have been on' as a good way to the pass time from one city to another =)

I imagine, however, that nothing cures inflight boredom quite like taking care of people as they fly. I'm really good at taking care of people on the ground, and am confident that the same can be said of me in the air.

The only downfall, I must admit, is though I am an incredible communicator in my native tongue [English], I don't speak much French, Spanish, or any of the other languages you listed in your Ad. I am, however, fluent in sarcasm [the funny kind, not the hurtful kind], and am really good at speaking the language of love, which, as I have learned throughout my travels, transcends any other language. So does genuine care.

That child in 2B who's crying? I have a plethora of silly faces to distract him/her. 
That exhausted woman in West Jet Plus? I will make sure she gets plenty of rest, or coffee if she prefers. 
That nervous flyer in 10C? Being an experienced flyer myself, I'm just as comforting as the blankets you sell ;)

All 'kidding' aside, distraught guests or not, I'll do what it takes to make sure that every single person who flies West Jet sees no choice but to fly West Jet from that flight on, just like you do.

Besides, I look really good in blue and teal ;) Please hire me!

I've attached my Resume for your viewing and look forward to hearing from you. I can be reached by phone [I AM NOT PUTTING THIS ON MY BLOG] or by email [THIS EITHER] at your earliest convenience.

Thanks so much,

Paula

just for the record, i would never send this kind of cover letter to a company that didn't have a sense of humour.

ps. for those of you wondering, west jet didn't even humour me; the only thing i got back from west jet was a rejection letter. HA.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

i've been thinking about the importance of job culture as i've been sending off countless cover letters and resumes these past few weeks [all the while praying that the next job i land isn't as toxic as more recent ones have been]. and really, for me, most of the problems i've encountered along the way have come down to poor leadership. below are three key observations i've made as a manager, and an employee, over the years.

1) you get what you pay for.

i once got paid $0.25 more than minimum wage to manage a coffee shop. my staff's role? make coffee, and serve it. my role? the same + manage the staff we had during the daytime, count the tills and make the bank deposit, receive and put away coffee and food orders, address customer complaints, and so forth. realizing the weight of my responsibility compared to others, i asked my boss for a raise, to which he replied, "i can give you a $0.10 raise, sure". needless to say, i made like a baby and head out.

i couldn't help but think of this as i was hunting for a job today. it floored me when i'd come across someone looking to fill a management position yet only willing to pay $12/hour [which is only $0.60 above minimum wage, and $0.60 more than every other staff would get]. and even worse, i came across a detailed ad describing all of the employer's expectations of their future employee - and the list was many - followed by a "we pay $10/hour". $10.00 an hour? isn't that illegal?!

managers, owners, leaders, respectively, listen up - salary should be based on job description, education, and/or experience. good leaders pay their staff accordingly.

2) your staff don't listen to what you say as much as they watch what you do.

years a go, my boss was doing everything she could to get rid of one of my fellow staff members and would write her up for the most ridiculous things. one day, while i was in the office, i overheard her telling other staff that she was going to fire this certain someone today because, get this, she was wearing blue socks, not black ones as per our dress code. the truth is, my manager didn't even wear black socks - most people didn't - in fact, i had white socks on that particular day. i did what anyone else would have done [okay, maybe just what i would have done]; i pulled my pant leg up, showed her my clean, fresh, white socks and said, "i'm not wearing black socks, either, so if you're going to write ____ up, you can go ahead and write me up too". [for the record, no one got written up that day].

whether it's as small of an issue as following dress code, or bigger ones like being on time and possessing a strong work ethic, good leaders lead by example.

3) a thank you goes a long, long way.

encouraging others comes naturally to me. if you need a pat on a back, a 'you got this', or a 'thank you', i'm your girl.

that being said, i realize that it doesn't come as naturally to other people, but, and there's a big but, that doesn't change how vital appreciation is to your company's growth, and to those you lead.

at the risk of sounding too urban, happy staff create a good vibe, a good vibe = happy guests/customers/clients, which, in turn means, more of them, which, get this, in most cases = more money, which means, happy YOU. it's really not rocket science. we all win.

but what often happens is, we forget to show our appreciation. public acknowledgement. a pay raise. staff christmas party or dinner outing. THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO SAY THANK YOU, and so many benefits of doing so. good leaders appreciate their staff.

of course, being a good leader isn't limited to the above three things. there are other things that contribute - checking in with your team, understanding work-life balance, giving constructive feedback, allowing room for growth etc. - but these are the three that are dear to my heart, and this is my blog, so, well, you get what's dear to my heart.

until next time, friends.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

yesterday, we talked, but today, we still need to.

in 2008, i walked into a psych ward. i had to. my mind was going crazy and wouldn't shut off, so out of desperation, i walked into the hospital in edmonton, spent every ounce of energy i had left checking off boxes and filling out piles of paperwork, and sat there, alone, for hours, wondering what 'help' was going to look like.

what seemed like hours later, my name was called. i followed a lady down a long, bright hall to a room where two counselors sat across from me. i remember feeling such a sense of relief when i entered that room; i was finally getting the help i needed.

only, i never did.

the senior counselor, who sat in that room and stared at me, laughed at me and told me that i wasn't depressed, i was 'just unemployed'. so off i went an hour later, without any help, and still just as 'unemployed'.

somehow, i made it through. unfortunately, not all do.

i found a really great counselor out west, who helped me process everything i was feeling and assured me that i was 'normal'. thankfully, i had benefits to cover the costs. some don't.

i moved back home shortly after, but my depression followed. at times, it was circumstantial - other times, it wasn't - but both carried the same weight; both felt like a dark, suffocating cloud.

i tried the med route, and the counselor route again, but i couldn't seem to get the right fit with either. so i battled it alone. the truth is, a lot of people battle it alone.

after losing my dad in 2011, i put myself on a six month waiting list with an organization that offered free counseling because i couldn't afford to pay for it. waiting felt like forever, yet at the same time, gave me a reason to hang on. it didn't take me long to realize, however, that the man i was assigned to wasn't qualified to help me process my grief - something he willingly admitted after our first session - so again, i was left to battle my depression alone.

but somehow, i made it 'through'. again.

i gave counseling another chance a few years later, only to have one counselor, during my first session, tell me that the reason i wasn't in a committed relationship [which is not why i went to see him] is because i'm a lesbian [which i'm not], and the next one didn't know how to handle a client who didn't 'fit in a box', and i certainly didn't fit in his box.

and so i was forced to take ahold of my own life, something that unfortunately not everyone with a mental illness is able to do.

over time, i was able to come up with some tools to conquer my mental illness. there are days even now where i battle it, especially since my mother passed away, but thanks to these tools [a better diet, getting fresh air, doing things that occupy my brain and make me feel alive, finding a good counselor etc], my bouts of depression are less frequent and less intense these days.

but i remember them as if they were yesterday, which is why days like yesterday hit close to home for me.

thanks to bell's generous initiative, all of the their customers who sent texts yesterday, and all of YOU who included the hashtag #BellLetsTalk throughout social media, a grand total of $6,585,250.50 was raised for mental health funding - which is absolutely incredible - but let's not stop there.

while education and awareness play a vital role in any healing process, action is what paves the way for change.

education leads to understanding.
understanding --> compassion,
compassion --> action [or compACTION as i like to call it]
and action, change.

so ... let's be people who act! let's keep the conversation going. reach out to someone you know who is struggling. accompany a friend to the doctor's office. connect them to a much needed resource. help them search for a counselor, or better yet, help them pay for one if you're able to. [someone did that for me once, and i'll never forget it].

while ultimately it's up to the one struggling to get help [no one can help someone if they don't want it], we can all play a part.

moved about the stories you heard yesterday? let that which moved [and moves] your heart activate your hands.

bell, let's act.

Monday, January 16, 2017

my mind used to go crazy, you see – and not the ‘i’m going to hurt myself or anyone else' kind of crazy – but the isolated kind; no matter how many people i had in my life, how many people told me they loved me, or showed me, i made myself believe that i was alone, and because of that, i projected this particular thought pattern into all of my relationships. [we project what we believe].

so this is why i feel the 'need' to say hello to anyone who makes eye contact with me each day. it's my way of saying, "i see you".

we, north americans, live in a very 'image based' culture. we waste so much time searching for the right instagram filters [i know i'm not the only one] or picking out the right outfit. we spend money upgrading a phone we were happy with last week when there wasn't a newer model, or maxing out our credit to make sure we have the biggest house on the block or the best car in the driveway, and, on a smaller scale, we put a smile on our face when we're falling apart on the inside. whether you resonate with any of these examples or not, you fall into the image trap somewhere. we all do.

i was strolling through toronto this morning when i stopped to say hey to a fella sitting on the cold sidewalk. we didn't exchange much more than a few smiles and a few "have a great day"s, but we acknowledged each other, and sometimes, that's all one needs. sometimes, acknowledging a fellow human being is enough.

people often ask me why i have such a heart for the marginalized, and really, my answer is simple, and twofold: 1) because God does, and 2) because i can relate on a certain level. i do not, for the life of me, understand what it's like to lay my head down at night on a heating vent, or even a mat, nor do i know what it's like to sit on a cold and brittle sidewalk and rely on people's leftover change, but i do understand - whether my my mind played tricks on me at times or not - what it's like to feel overlooked and isolated.

our stories [what we go through and the pain we feel] connect to more people than we realize. how does your story connect with the people in your life? your family? coworkers? the strangers you pass each day? we may not get to have a heart to heart with everyone [who has time for that?], but we can, at the very least, take our eyes off of our phone, make eye contact, and say hey to each other once in a while.

i see you.