This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.
Lana Mitchell was a single mother with one child. She was 17 years old and found she had a chip on her shoulder.
“I was in a grocery store and my daughter was in my cart and these two women were saying ‘oh she’s so cute.’ And then through a little more conversation, she’s all of a sudden no longer cute and she wasn’t worth their attention because we weren’t good enough,” Mitchell says.
“They learned we were in low-income public housing and that’s just how they portrayed us that we were less than and not worth the time for even a chat and I thought, you know what, we need to start proving people wrong.”
During the 1985 municipal election, Mitchell and some neighbours living in public housing on Manitou Street in North Bay heard of an open forum the candidates were holding regarding poverty in the Gateway City.
“We were young and naive, and we thought, well we should participate in this discussion,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell says the election came and went and the council of the day decided there wasn’t a significant enough need to address poverty in North Bay.
“We thought, wow that’s pretty amazing. They were on-site at our homes and looking at these conditions and when they made that announcement it was like; well you’ve got to be kidding me. Of course, I didn’t understand how the world worked back then. We didn’t have the internet to get information and sometimes you weren’t even given access to all the public documents. So, we just kept asking questions and raising a stink about it, and that movement kind of grew. If you had said to us then that we would be doing what we’re doing today, I wouldn’t have believed it. Information was power then and the moment we got that information we shared it.”
Mitchell is the Executive Director for Low Income People Involvement of Nipissing and says what you see today all started because of that group of five individuals on Manitoulin Street 35 years ago.
She says they found ways to support each other within that group. Then they got a visit from a program supervisor with the Ministry of Canada’s special services who said they should look at expanding what they are doing.
“He was able to give us a little seed money to get started but we weren’t even allowed to open a bank account and so we had to give most of the money back the first year,” said Mitchell.
She says since no one in their group had a driver’s license they couldn’t open a corporate account. But that didn’t stop them from trying to improve their lives. Mitchell says one of the first things they did was apply for a grant to secure better housing which they did get approved for.
“There were five of us living in public housing and we got approved for a grant worth millions of dollars to build new homes. We couldn’t believe it. And we knew nothing about building houses.”
They started to put the work in and developed co-op housing that was much needed for the community and Mitchell says that’s when L.I.P.I. really took off. More people were getting involved and more needs were being met.
Mitchell says one of the big accomplishments this group has had is getting daycare spaces provided in North Bay. She says they picketed City Hall to make that happen.
“You want people to work and get off the system and make something of themselves,” she says. “But they seriously expected us to be able to do that without adequate childcare options. Sometimes those meetings were adversarial because we were dealing with so many people every month that were having the same issue and we’d call council and say you need to look at this.”
Mitchell says they eventually got to work with council and those spaces became available within North Bay. Since then they have gone on to help people with their taxes, to assisting with back to school supplies, to helping people who are behind on their rent or their hydro bills.
But Mitchell says it took a long time to get to that point as nothing ever came easy.
“Everything we learned to do we learned it the hard way.”
She says one thing that they had to overcome was discrimination from both sides.
“As much as people stereotyped us, we were judging people we perceived to be from a higher income class. So, if you were lucky enough to have a job or a decent place to live. At first, we were judgmental of that and we had to learn that people in those situations can be in just as much need as us.”
Mitchell adds the donors that keep them going are not who you might expect. She says, “It’s all private people, its private business. One of our biggest partners is the Landlord’s Association because if you want people to be able to live in affordable housing, you have to support those who are providing it.”
Thinking back to those early days, Mitchell says no one expected them to accomplish anything. So, if they were able to help people, they were grateful and thankful for it. Now she says they have set a precedent for people in the community to go to, to meet their needs. She says that can be stressful for the organization.
“When you start adding up the numbers, I almost panic because I think how we are going to do that again and how did we even pull that off in the first place. When you grow it becomes harder to manage everything because we went from a volunteer group, putting in the hours when we could, to now being an organization that has staff, who need training and time off, and it's just a whole different level of involvement. And it didn’t happen overnight that’s for sure.”
Mitchell says all along all they have tried to do is help people as much as they possibly could because she didn’t want anyone to have to feel what she did as a 17-year-old in a grocery store with her daughter.
“I was hurt but I was motivated out of spite because of that incident because I just remember thinking ‘how could they act like that?’ And it wasn’t just me that was looked at in that way. One of the other women in that initial group was raising six kids on her own and that’s not easy to do now, let alone back then. Child support wasn’t what it is now, and every single issue was a challenge just to make it right and we’re happy to help people overcome those when we can.”
“Low income and poverty issues are always going to be political issues,” she says. “And it's frustrating to sort of try to tiptoe around that sometimes because its whatever is politically cute that day that gets addressed. So, we’ve dealt with pretty much the same stuff that we’ve always done. We try to deal with a crisis and then figure out how to stabilize people with their own resources and send them forward.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at email@example.com