Sun Youth is well known for helping the city’s needy with its food bank, but behind the scenes, we do a lot of work to help disadvantaged Montrealers integrate into society, like Alex Labelle, a young man with an intellectual disability who has flourished while volunteering with the organization for the past 15 years.
Over that time, his mother, Diane Arsenault, has seen Alex take on a variety of roles at the charity which have helped him grow from a shy youngster to a confident man.
Alex was born with FG Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that manifests itself in a variety of ways including mild developmental delays which have challenged, but not deterred him.
He first started out working for Sun Youth’s library in our previous location at the old Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain Street, then began working in our food bank when we relocated to the northern end of Park Avenue.
“He was very quiet in the beginning, now everybody’s saying that he’s opening up, which is really neat,” says Diane. “With Sun Youth, they’re inclusive. They accept him so when he talks, he’s listened to, so he partakes. It feels like it’s a big family to him and for me, as a parent, I’m proud of him.”
Alex worked at other places when he finished school, but the atmosphere was night and day compared to Sun Youth.
“Elsewhere, he was spoken to, he wasn’t listened to … he always felt like an outcast,” says Diane. “Here, he comes in, he has his head up high and for people at every level who work with him, he’s not a number. They look at him and they speak to him as a human.”
– Diane Arseneault
Sun Youth’s director of emergency services Eric Kingsley said that the organization helps people in many difficult situations gain work experience and find fulfillment.
“From a distance, people may not realize all of the integration that we do with people living with disabilities, people living with neurodiversity, or people living in refugee situations or who are vulnerable on different levels,” he says.
Eric Kingsley is especially proud of Alex’s story and was pleasantly surprised by the change he underwent during the height of the COVID pandemic. When other volunteers stayed home, Alex saw the need and began coming in every day and started to take on a leadership role with other volunteers.
For his part, Alex says that he loves working in the food bank and the added responsibilities have given him new confidence.
“We kept giving him more responsibility and he’s been here so long that the new guys started looking up to him and he’d take them under his wing. It’s a beautiful transformation and he has really become the captain of the team that works in our food bank right now.”
– Eric Kingsley
His mother has since joined him as a volunteer at Sun Youth. She has always admired the work that Sun Youth does and admits that one of the organization’s co-founders, Sid Stevens, has long been a hero of hers.
She now gets to meet the people that Sun Youth helps and hear their stories first-hand, like one woman who had recently arrived from Ukraine as a war refugee and was living in a hotel room with virtually no possessions. They could only communicate via an interpreter, but the woman embraced Diane for the help she and Sun Youth offered her, and both were moved to tears by the encounter.
“It’s moments like that I know I’m in the right place with Sun Youth.”
Diane wishes more people would give their time or money to Sun Youth because she has seen how important their work is.
It has inspired her to raise money for the organization on her own Facebook page to encourage people to give just a few dollars at a time. She calls it “One Drop in the Bucket.”
“When people are confronted or solicited for donations, everybody freaks out and says ‘I don’t have 20 bucks. I don’t have 50 bucks,’ but my approach was to give one, two, three, four, five, because if you give five bucks then multiply that by a thousand, then you can furnish a lot and from viewing first-hand the people that come here, they fully need it.”
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