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Extending a helping hand

Herb Mathison
Northern News Services
Published Monday, December 12, 2011

Compared to when she first arrived in Fort Smith, these days Cheryl Foote thinks people in town are generally happier around the holidays.

NNSL photo/graphic

Fort Smith's Cheryl Foote holds up one of the 200 or so winter jackets that she said The Extended Hand outreach centre has gone through this year. - photo courtesy of Cheryl Foote

Foote is the volunteer manager of The Extended Hand, a community outreach centre she has been involved with since 1994.

Early on, she did a lot of crisis counselling in the centre.

"When I was here 17 years ago, around Christmas I dealt with a lot of suicide counselling," she said.

Since the opening of the community's wellness centre and with more families focusing on improving their education, the problem isn't as dire as it once was.

"I saw people who were suicidal alcoholics when I got here and they went to school and that totally changed their outlooks," said Foote.

Foote has a counselling and crisis management degree from Toronto's Trinity College and she also completed a master's degree. She moved North from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., to teach at the local bible college. But she soon found herself taking a job at the Trail Crossing Treatment Centre to pay her rent and bills.

Foote runs The Extended Hand with six regular volunteers - her husband Garry, Alma MacDonald, Tanya Vyse, Rosie Nadary and Albertine and Harold Gambler. Foote said the role of the centre has evolved as the community has grown.

The organization, which operates under the direction of the Pentecostal Church's board of directors, used to house a food bank and run a holiday food hamper drive. Recently, those initiatives were relocated elsewhere due to space issues.

"We could use a bigger building, if anyone's got one," she said with a laugh.

Community wellness workers now deal with much of the outreach and counselling work Foote used to perform.

"It took the pressure off," she said. "I don't do half as much counselling anymore and hardly any crisis counselling. That's good in a way."

Half of the centre is bursting with clothes, books and second-hand goods, which are sold to keep the facility operating. Some funding comes from community donations, Foote said, and rent from a downstairs apartment helps pay for the building's fuel.

Foote said the second-hand store has already gone through 200 to 250 jackets this winter.

Foote said Aurora College students from across the North - including the Eastern Arctic - typically benefit most from the winter clothing.

"Up until about three or four years ago, students came to the college with absolutely nothing," she said.

Foote said the price of items in the store has always remained constant.

"It hasn't been moved in years," she said. "It doesn't matter if a Lincoln Continental comes in, it'll be 25 cents."

Homeless people don't have to pay for winter gear.

"When you see somebody who hasn't got a nice winter jacket walk out fully dressed, that is always great," she said.

While Foote still does some financial and life-skills counselling, a lot of her work consists of sorting clothing donations, cleaning the facility and getting coffee, tea and treats ready for the adults and families who drop in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

The centre is home to a kids' play area, a ping-pong table, a video centre and tables where guests can put together puzzles.

As for Foote's future, she is currently working on her doctorate in education and crisis management.

She said students still need support to deal with all their competing life priorities.

"I still find in this community that people get too frustrated trying to manage their families, college and money and they give up," she said.

"So that is my personal initiative for the future: to try to make those hurdles a little less imposing for them."

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