Esperanza extends hope to First Nations
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By Jack Krayenhoff

IN the mid-1900s, the name Esperanza (Spanish for ‘hope’) meant a hospital on an island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, a little south-west of Tahsis.

Percy Wills, a Shantymen missionary, had explored the area in the early 1930s, and had seen the great need of a hospital for all the fishing, logging and First Nations communities in the region.

At that time, anyone who was seriously ill or injured would have to wait for a freighter which came once a month, which could take them to a hospital in Vancouver.

Wills recruited Dr. Herman McLean, and together they built a hospital. An organization to own and run it was established: the Nootka Mission. After some 40 years of serving the west coast people, however, the region became more accessible and the need for the hospital came to an end. In 1975, it was closed.

Meanwhile, Earl Johnson –  another Shantymen missionary, who together with Harold Petersen ran the mission boat Messenger III – and his wife Louise, had made Esperanza their home, and their three children were born there.

One of these was Deane, who now leads the new Esperanza. BCCN went to ask him what the current ministry is all about.

Deane Johnson points out that Esperanza (formerly called Uematsu, meaning ‘a place of cleansing’) had a reputation among the First Nations as a place for recovery long before the hospital was established.

People would stay there to rest up from strenuous canoe trips, or from stressful periods in their lives.

“It seems that it was ordained by God as a place of healing and rest,” he says.

After the hospital closed, Esperanza went though a difficult time while it was struggling to find a new identity. Johnson, together with his wife Sharon – who, like himself, had been born in Esperanza – was working as a high school principal in Ahousat, a First Nations village of some 1,000 people, 15 minutes by boat north of Tofino. After seven years there, they felt the need to take a break – and decided to spend a year in Esperanza.

They had just settled in when they got a request from friends in Ahousat to come to Esperanza for awhile. They had gone through a time of stress, and needed some rest. Of course, the Johnsons said ‘yes.’ Soon, more families wanted to come, for various reasons: marital problems; a child suicide; drug problems. They too were welcomed, and it became clear some structure was required.

At the moment there are 20 to 30 families on the waitlist. They stay for six weeks, and four such six-week sessions are offered per year. The families provide their own meals. The program varies with the needs of the group; the focus ranges from grief and loss, to substance abuse or domestic violence. Child care and a school is available for the children.

A day starts with a 90-minute Bible study in story form – which is a popular format. Later in the day, well-trained and capable staff members tackle a topic in a group setting – for example, anger management or communication.

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There is also a program for men. Often, this is geared to substance abuse, and these people need a longer time –  six months or more – to regain their self-esteem and acquire good habits.

This unique ministry has been going for 14 years – and remarkably, the Johnsons had no model for it; they had to learn as they went along. They now have competent professional staff to help them, but clearly an essential ingredient of their success is their understanding and respect for First Nations culture.

The following story, told by Johnson, illustrates this:

Last year, the hereditary Chief of Ahousat told the drug dealers and bootleggers of the village that they would have to leave. However, as an option, he offered a stay at Esperanza. Though they were in need of rest themselves, our staff had agreed to this. 

Almost all of the people who were given this ultimatum chose Esperanza – and one day, some 60 of them arrived there. Though they were embarrassed and angry at first, and some of them were hung over, the staff greeted them warmly and thanked them for coming.

The first meeting was tense; there was anger toward the chiefs, and denial of their own guilt. But towards the end, one of them shared a dream he had had repeatedly – a dream of a different Ahousat, without drunkenness and fighting, where children could play safely outside. He wondered if they, as a group, could play a part in making that dream come true. That was the beginning of a new slant on the situation.

After two unstructured days, one man asked: “What are we here for? What’s the program?” A wise Ahousat counsellor replied: “For years, the white people have taken away our way of life, our language and even our names; they have taken away the control over our lives. But now, we give you control over what is going to happen here.”

So they got together and designed a wonderful program: every morning, a chance to get anything off their chest they wanted, then a Bible story/study. Then lots of cultural activity: making drums and paddles, and restoring two canoes that had sat around neglected and rotting away. It was tremendous.

Contact: esperanza.ca

September 2008