She was in a cell while the virus spread.

In the spring of 2020 Candi K. was arrested and locked in the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women – not too far from the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre where a cluster of COVID-19 cases spread to 31 inmates and five workers.

“We were locked in our cells almost all day. We were only able to come out for food,” Candi recalls.

She remembers the fear that a worker might pass from FRCC to ACCW and bring the virus with them.

“I was thinking: ‘I’m going to die in here,’” she says. “We’re all going to get COVID.”

Candi wrote letters to her family then. She wanted to apologize for everything. There was, and is, a lot of pain in her past.

Telling her story more than a year later over a picnic table in a Coquitlam backyard, Candi is relaxed and funny. She laughs a lot. Listening to her, it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile the cheerful person in front of you with the history behind her.

She has HATE tattooed on her left hand. I ask if there’s LOVE tattooed on her other hand. She shakes her head. 

“There was no love in my family,” she says.

Her grandmother, a residential school survivor, raised Candi for a while. She was also in and out of foster homes.

“I went through sexual abuse as a young child,” she says. “I was raised through intergenerational abuse and alcohol . . . so I didn’t know how to live any better.”

She started drinking. It was a way not to remember the trauma or to feel the pain.

“Once I would get loaded I would just be out of control,” she says.

“I just kept getting tattoos,” she laughs. “And myself in trouble.”

She wanted out. Out of ACCW, out of trouble, out of the way she’d been living. She found herself thinking about her children, she remembers.

“I wanted to be in their lives again,” she says.

She called Talitha Koum. And she called again. She says she called nearly every day for two months.

It was about showing them she really wanted to be there, Candi explains.

She arrived at the Coquitlam recovery home in June 2020.

Not everyone arrives at the recovery house to get sober, Candi acknowledges.

“Sometimes we get women in here who are just here to get out of jail so they can, you know, book it,” she says.

But there are others, notes recovery house facilitator Terri M.

“Some really actually want healing,” Terri says. “They want a new way of life.”

Candi was one of those women.

She arrived without ID, without much hair or any teeth. Her outward transformation, it turned out, was the easy part.

“I was scared to share at meetings,” she recalls. “I didn’t want anybody to see me like that.”

Candi was up early for chores, breakfast and a walk, then back to the house for a group meeting. Her days were filled with bible study, 12-step work, life skills, parenting classes, art therapy, financial literacy and even a kickboxing class.

“I did a lot of hard work. A lot of inside work,” Candi says.

Sitting beside her “work wife,” Terri nods.

“Yeah, you did,” Terri agrees. 

Rules of the game

There are strict rules, Terri notes.

“We’re not allowed to talk to men,” she explains.

That includes conversations at church and at meetings as well as phone calls to old friends, Terri explains.

While some people are perplexed by that rule, Terri says it allows women to work on themselves.

“I tell you it’s saved my bacon,” she adds.

For Candi, her recovery evolved with her faith. She remembers talking with staff members about the times she had no hope and no desire to stay alive.

“And yet somehow, something brought you out of that,” she says. “That couldn’t have been just your own self-will. . . . My own self-will got me into doing drugs and a life full of crime.”

For Candi, the thought was a revelation. 

“There’s got to be something out there.”

Candi graduated from the program in October. She was considering doing something in the field of makeup and beauty when executive director Odo Nkum and society vice-president Mary O’Neill called Candi into the office.

They had a question: What would you think about working here?

“Really?”

Three seasons later, Candi still sounds incredulous when she recounts the offer.

“I never could’ve ever pictured myself working here,” she says.

Candi said yes.

Terri laughs at the story. Less because it’s funny than because it’s familiar.

Terri

Now 12 years sober, Terri M. helps women in recovery as facilitator for Talitha Koum. photo supplied

Terri remembers leaving Port Coquitlam so she could check in to a recovery house in Vancouver. She was pregnant at the time and knew she needed a place where people didn’t know her.

“I couldn’t stay sober in the community that I had caused so much damage to and knew  every nook and cranny of where I could pick up drugs,” she says.

There’s also the claustrophobic nature of a small town where reputations trail you through apartment applications and jobs interviews, Candi notes.

After a relapse, Terri went back into recovery in 2009. She’s been sober ever since.

“It’s funny how God works because I didn’t have any intention of coming back,” she says.

For years she’d been in touch but not exactly involved until a confluence of unrelated events – beginning with bread –brought her back.

With more loaves of bread than she knew what to do with, Terri swung by and asked Mary O’Neill if she wanted some for the recovery house.

O’Neill declined the bread but mentioned they needed a volunteer who knew the program.

As it happened, someone close to Terri had just suffered a relapse.

She started teaching a relapse prevention group and ended up working five days a week as a house facilitator.

As facilitator she’s there eight hours a day, teaching groups, talking about coping skills, step work, and having: “sit-down, heart-to-heart conversations.” 

“I feel purposeful in my role today,” she says. “I find passion when I teach.”

It’s a hard job, Candi says, but a rewarding one. 

“Doesn’t matter how far down the road you go, whether you’re dumpster diving or into prostitution or whatever . . .you can have a new life,” she says. “Look at where I came from. If I can do it, you can do it.”

Mary

Despite being “retired,” former schoolteacher and principal Mary O’Neill is vice-president of non-profit society Talitha Koum. photo Jeremy Shepherd

She’s taught or been principal at Centennial, Moody, Pinetree, Riverside and Charles Best.

“Where didn’t I teach?” asks Mary O’Neill as she sips a hot drink outside a Starbucks. “I wasn’t really ready to retire but I needed to retire.”

Not content to put her feet up, O’Neill soon took a spot on Talitha Koum’s board around the time the non-profit was looking to buy a second stage house where women and children can stay.

“We tend to be first come, first serve,” O’Neill reflects.

However, there is sometimes a push to find a bed for mothers.

“You want to get the women with kids in if you can to really break that generational cycle,” she notes. “Women who have young children with them tend to stay longer and finish the program.”

The name Talitha Khoum is taken from Jesus Christ’s words as he resurrects a young girl the Book of Mark. Roughly translated, Talitha khoum means “Little girl, I say to you get up!”

Founded by Starr Peardon in 2000, Talitha Khoum was officially granted non-profit society status on June 18, 2001 and has been operating in Coquitlam since 2008.

While the program is Christian-based, “you don’t have to be Christian,” O’Neill says.

Bible study at Talitha Koum is like a required course in school, O’Neill explains.

“You might not like math, you might not like English, you might not like social studies but that’s part of the curriculum, so we’re going to learn about it,” she says. “You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to believe it. This is what we teach.”

The notion is to look at the whole person, O’Neill explains. “[The] soul is part of the whole person.”

Talking about the house, O’Neill mentions how much she admires the women.

“Every single one of these women have had lots of trauma,” she says. “Yet they keep getting up every day and keep wanting to have things better. . . . Wow.”

Discussing the future of the program, O’Neill says she would love to add another house with individual units for recent graduates.

“If I could dream,” she adds with a smile noting the high cost of housing.

While they help the women apply for income assistance, childcare benefits and in finding work, housing continues to be a struggle.

“They’re saying, ‘OK, so where do we go next?’”

TK celebrated 20 years of recovery with a backyard get-together in June. photo supplied

All you need is …

Candi talks about the promises she made and broke. Mostly, the promises were about never using drugs again. 

There was a time, she says, when she was certain that all those broken promises had rendered her relationship with her son’s father irreparable.

“I thought he was never going to let me see my kid again,” she says.

But recently the relationship has thawed to the point that they’re planning to share custody of their son once Candi gets a place of her own. 

There are “little gifts” in life, she says.

One of Candi’s tattoos is a human skull intertwined with money. It marks a time she sold drugs and only thought about the money.

“You hurt people,” she says of that time in her life. “That alone you have to live with for the rest of your life.”

Asking for forgiveness is hard, especially when it comes to asking yourself.

“At the end of the day I have to be able to forgive myself,” Candi acknowledges. “Which has been very hard.”

Now 12 years sober, Terri attributes her new life to Talitha Khoum.

“I do know that our program works because I’m a living testament of that,” she says. “We just have . . .”

She trails off and turns to Candi.

“Love,” Candi finishes.