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Newmarket's homeless community gets soapy to give back

The fundraiser, which was organized by graduates of Inn from the Cold's Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’-By World program, will help a young boy with a rare genetic disorder

After learning about a young boy with a rare genetic disorder and his journey toward health, clients of Newmarket’s Inn from the Cold homeless shelter took it upon themselves to host a charity car wash to raise funds to help cover the family’s medical expenses.

“Nothing like that has ever been done here before,” said Inn from the Cold program coordinator Ashley Martin, whose son, Cooper, 7, was diagnosed about one year ago with ataxia-telangiectasia, a condition that affects the nervous system, immune system and other body systems. 

The family travels to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for treatment as there is a lack of Canadian medical experts on the subject.

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Martin, who facilities the program known as Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’-By World, said she shares bits and pieces of her personal life with homeless clients to make it easier for them to relate to her as a person. 

She was caught by surprise one Monday morning, however, when she turned up for work at the Penrose Street shelter to find six graduates of the Getting Ahead program waiting for her. 

“They said they want to give back, they want to help Cooper out on his journey and they want to do a car wash,” Martin said, as emotion welled up in her voice. “They came up with this over the weekend, which is always the most difficult for our most vulnerable because there are no services available, it’s challenging for them to get through to Monday.”

The Getting Ahead program is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and offers homeless clients twice-weekly, two-hour sessions over eight weeks to help them access resources and broaden their network and opportunities to move on to the next step in their lives.

The Aug. 10 car wash was not an Inn from the Cold initiative, rather, it was an idea generated by homeless clients to give back to their community, and held at the shelter’s parking lot.

They named the fundraiser Homeless Community Gives Back and, by all accounts, it was a soapy success. About 37 cars passed through two car-washing stations and $1,700 was raised in Cooper’s honour.

Shelter executive director Ann Watson said the car wash proved, without a doubt, that providing people with opportunities to feel a sense of purpose is what it’s going to take to move them forward.

“We let them organize it and they took it on,” Watson said. “They set their own goals for the car wash, which was to give back to the community, to better their ability to work with other people, to feel a sense of empowerment and inclusion, it would look great on their resume, and work like they care. I think they really delivered on everything.”

Watson and Martin both noted that the fundraiser may have changed the discourse on homelessness for some of the people who had their cars washed. One young customer asked to look inside the shelter and asked where the homeless people are. The seven-year-old didn’t realize the clients were outside doing the work. 

“That car wash showed us that we’re on the right track,” Watson said, adding that the community can expect to see more such initiatives as the shelter undergoes a rethink on how to partner with people on their journey out of homelessness. “Since April, we have seen so many people get housed. We fully subscribe to the housing-first philosophy, but in order for it to work, people have to want it to work, and this program has been that icebreaker.”

“It’s a way to deal with the insecurity and the fear and the expectations of failure,” she added. “It’s given people renewed hope that with the right supports and opening up themselves to support and direction, unity and social inclusion, that they can have success, and they actually want it.”

The car wash started out with a zero budget, but the community stepped up to help make it happen. Aurora auto parts business B & B Dixon Automotive donated all the car wash supplies, and other community members supplied the day’s food and refreshments.

About 24 shelter clients turned up on the day of the fundraiser, of their own accord, and worked two car-washing stations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“It took a few cars for them to get into the teamwork and communication but, by the time the third or fourth car rolled around, they were like a fine-tuned machine,” Martin said. “They worked five people per car, and soon figured out that the tallest person would do the roof. That was their time to shine, to work like they care and to give back, in their hearts, to a really beneficial cause.”

One Newmarket resident, Dympna Dionne, left this comment on the shelter's Facebook page: “Congratulations, everybody. An awesome effort for a very worthy cause. Left there with a sparkling clean car and a smile in my heart.” 

For more information on Inn from the Cold, visit here.