Once trapped in a life of unspeakable abuse, neglect and suffering, Olga candidly and openly shares her story about how living at Skylark’s Hillsdale Home helped her heal, thrive and reach her full potential.
“Both of my parents suffered from serious mental health issues – my father’s depression led to homelessness for 25 years; my mother’s psychosis caused me to be miserable from the day I was born. To the outside world, I appeared to be the bright, grateful little girl of a highly educated, energetic and hardworking single mom, even though I exhibited many textbook symptoms of abuse (significant hair loss, facial tics, acute digestive issues, occasional bruises).
No adult in my life ever stepped in.
School was my sanctuary. I knew that as long as I studied hard and always handed in my homework, even the meanest and strictest teachers would like me and praise me. My fellow students, not so much. I was always very lonely.
But that bubble burst for me in grade 11. Although still a top student, a new lateness policy rendered me a delinquent who had to serve frequent detentions.
The walls of my sanctuary crumbled and so began my downward spiral.
I come from a family of scientists. My grandfather – whom I adored – was a Physics professor; I’d always dreamed of following in his footsteps to become a physicist. However, in spite of the fact that I was getting 100% in Physics, I often found myself in the principal’s office for skipping detentions. In my world – where sexual and physical abuse, degradation, humiliation, cruelty and neglect were constants – I failed to understand how skipping detentions was evil.
Any self esteem I possessed disintegrated and, believing I was too stupid to be a scientist, I decided to drop most maths and sciences.
The school wouldn’t allow me to drop the courses, so I just skipped them. My list of school infractions grew—not only was I skipping classes, I was skipping detentions, storming out of classrooms and generally being difficult and rebellious.
One day, after a particularly horrible night at home, I found myself in the vice-principal’s office, who said, “Olga, I’m worried about you. What on earth is going on?” I was so completely caught off guard that I gave an honest answer:
“Things are not good at home”, I stammered, and then burst into violent sobs.
That’s when the first of my angels came into my life. Ironically, his name was Angelo.
Angelo, the Agency’s social worker in my school, spoke to me warmly. When he asked if I’d come back to talk to him again, I said yes because he asked; he didn’t demand or threaten. And he was just so nice to talk to. I opened up about how unhappy I was, confiding that I was seriously considering quitting school and leaving home to work full time.
Angelo told me about all kinds of options I had no idea existed—subsidized living, halfway houses, youth shelters, group homes. All of a sudden, graduating high school seemed possible. He took me to see a home on Hillsdale Avenue…just a few blocks from school. It seemed too good to be true—a nice place to live and eat for free, get material necessities (my mother would not buy me clothes or school supplies) and have adults around whose job it was to look after me and help me heal.
Once I escaped to Hillsdale, my social workers told me that I didn’t understand boundaries, had anger issues and didn’t understand certain social aspects of life.
My response was “Deal with it.”
And guess what? They did!
Nicole, my primary worker, was always there for me with patience, humour and a “get-er-done” outlook. Bonnie and I spent many evenings talking about boys; what seemed like fun and lighthearted banter was slowly instilling ideas of what healthy relationships could look like. I wished I could be like Mary, who always stood her ground and never let anything or anyone get her down. Eric shared the best macaroni and cheese recipe ever with me; I still use it to this day.
Under the care and concern of my angels, I flourished – so much so that daily chores and adhering to curfew was okay.
It surprised me how much Hillsdale replicated a “normal family”, like what I saw on TV – even though our “family” was a rotation of social workers, not parents. In addition to the chores and curfew, there was grocery shopping, meal planning, sharing dinners together, “family” meetings, arguments over who controlled the remote… even holiday and birthday gifts!
After I left Hillside, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But I worked hard studying sociology at York University and graduated Cum Laude.
Then I nervously enrolled in York’s Physics program. Soon I was maintaining an A average, popular with fellow students, highly involved in clubs and making a name for myself with my professors and the administration. I joined and became president of the Physics Society.
Halfway through my second year, I applied for some summer research positions, not thinking anything would come of it (my self esteem still wasn’t completely up to par). Imagine my amazement when I received 4 offers! I chose to work under Dr. Cody Storry in his Antimatter Lab, where I designed and built the final stages of the McMaster Intense Positron Beamline Facility (don’t ask!).
Today, after 2 years of antimatter research, I am stationed at CERN in Switzerland as a Masters Student of Physics. I’ve won the highly prestigious Robert Tiffin Leadership and Robert Lundell Achievement Awards, not to mention the NSERC scholarship for my first year in Masters.
Thanks to Hillsdale – home of my many angels – I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve learned to love myself. I’ve learned how to be silly, have fun, grab life by the horns and squeeze everything I can out of it – every laugh, every smile, every opportunity, every grace.
I would not be where I am today without my Hillsdale angels, who helped me believe I was worthy of living, being loved and being cared for.
Sixteen-year-old Angeli was troubled and frightened with nowhere to turn.
After being teased and bullied all day at school (“for being diabetic…and fat”), Angeli found no solace or comfort when she walked in the door at home.
“My mom was bipolar, schizophrenic and clinically depressed. My brother was doing drugs. My father was overwhelmed trying to cope with everything. I was caught in the middle of all the fighting and chaos trying to keep the peace, but was always the one being yelled at.”
At her wit’s end, Angeli ran away.
“First, I went to a shelter, but after a week, I couldn’t stand it. So, I started living on the streets. That was worse, so I tried to end my life for the first time. But it didn’t work. I woke up in hospital.”
An emergency referral brought Angeli to Skylark’s Hillsdale House, a residence for young people experiencing serious mental health challenges.
“When I first moved in, I was not in good shape because I was having a really hard time handling what was happening to my mom. She was constantly in and out of hospital, which was very unsettling and disturbing for me, causing me to act out and rebel.”
Then Angeli’s mom committed suicide.
“I blamed myself. I believed with all my heart that if I had stayed at home, my mom would still be alive. She was my world; we were two peas in a pod and I just completely fell apart. I became a ‘frequent flyer’ on the suicide ward.”
Skylark’s highly trained and qualified counsellors did not give up on Angeli.
“I am speechless when I try to describe the constant support and compassion I received at Hillsdale”, recalls Angeli. “There were some really rough times during the two years I lived there, but my workers really understood what was happening with me and why — even when I was completely off the rails. Thanks to their determination and dedication, I blossomed from a lost, scared, angry girl into a grounded, responsible young woman. I might not be here if not for my Hillsdale family.”
A Skylark client shares their story about overcoming depression.
Imagine a dark room. Cold. Tiny. There are two sounds that innervate the room: a low growl that convinces you that you are useless, and the sound of you muffling your tears. That’s where I lived for a long time. There, I felt like I was choking on life.
It was impossible to carry on living the way I did. I felt guilty about everything, because the snarl in my room told me I was pathetic and a failure. So, I thought I didn’t deserve to live. I didn’t think I deserved food, so I stopped eating. I even felt guilty using tissues to wipe away my tears. Because I was useless, I thought everyone hated me. I thought the world would be a better place if I was dead. Can you imagine feeling this way every day? Feeling like your parents would be better off if you killed yourself? Needless to say, all these emotions prevented me from attending many classes, further isolating me, and forcing me to bow to the mercy of the voice.
One day, my high school guidance counsellor recommended a walk-in-clinic called Oolagen (the former name of Skylark). I was reluctant to go because I didn’t want to waste community resources. I mentioned the clinic to a friend I regularly confided in, and she encouraged me to make a visit. One day, right before my last year of high school, I was in the neighbourhood and I desperately wanted to get better, so I decided to go. Thank God I did go, because I finally started healing.
Skylark has amazing therapists. At the end of one session you feel so much better. The design of a walk-in clinic makes so much sense because you can discuss emotions on the day you feel down. Plus, you can visit the walk-in clinic as many times as you need. The environment is also super comfortable. The staff really put in an effort to make it feel inclusive and welcoming.
Because of Skylark, I found a new direction to my life. I just finished my second year of university, and frankly I didn’t think I would make it this far. I have amazing grades and am involved in many extra-curriculars. I have even started a club at my school that delivers mental health workshops to high school students.
I am so much more resilient to problems that come my way. Instead of crying for hours on end and blaming myself, I analyze the problem, talk to my parents, and find a solution. I don’t think in black and white anymore either, which caused me tremendous pain. I don’t beat myself up like I used to when I make mistakes. Now, I am gentler to myself, and am flexible enough to allow room for errors. Most importantly, I don’t believe I am a waste of space and that the world would be a better place without me. Instead, I believe that the world can be a better place with me.
I want to share my story because I want to help other people get the help they need. I am constantly advertising Skylark because it’s such a great resource. In the club I started, the first resource I wrote down was Skylark. My fussy, younger sister also enjoyed her experience there – that’s how great the therapist was.
Skylark has helped me defeat the maleficent voice in my room. My room is no longer cold and tiny. It is bright and colourful. Sometimes it is dark, but I have the tools now to open the curtains to let the light in. In the future, I wish to be a psychiatrist to help other people out of their mental cages, because now I know that it can be done.
Thank you so much Skylark, especially my therapist (who I also thanked at my high school graduation ceremony)!
A year may seem like a long time to feel bad, but it isn’t for me. I’ve been feeling low for about three years.
The most prevalent problem was my eating. I wouldn’t eat and then I’d get so hungry I’d eat a lot and throw it right back up. Although I never have been “rail thin’ (like I’d like to be), I’ve been trapped in it all the same.
I was terribly nervous at my first session at Oolagen and I didn’t say much. After a while, I felt I could talk with the social worker and I felt comfortable. Being able to explain to someone who understands is something I’d never experienced before. I could say how I felt and be open without worrying about anyone laughing or pointing at me. The dark cloud of my depression became clearer and easier to understand.
I can’t say enough about Oolagen because absolutely and truly I don’t know where I would be without it. I don’t even know if I would be here. That’s a hard thing to write, but it’s the truth. Having Oolagen in the school was a special bonus that allowed me my privacy from telling my family what was going on.
I’m not feeling wonderful, but I am here, and I know I have something to hold on to. I wish for all those who feel like me would find such a thing as Oolagen. It has helped more than many – even I – can know.
At 16, Elizabeth was a bright, ambitious girl who had already endured more than her share of social and family challenges when her mother took her own life.
Determined to “get over it and move on”, Elizabeth seemed fine on the outside. But she wasn’t fine. Her ongoing grief and guilt, combined with her self-imposed pressure to get top grades and be perfect were taking a mental and emotional toll. She began experimenting with drugs, staying out all night and having violent arguments with her brother and father.
After coming to Oolagen Elizabeth said her therapist helped her figure everything out, including how to stop associating everything that happened to her with her mother’s death. Oolagen also advocated for Elizabeth with authorities at her school and also helped her learn coping skills to manage the pressures of high school…and the pressures Elizabeth put on herself.
After graduating from high school Elizabeth was accepted into the Honours Communication Studies program at Carleton University in Ottawa…and one of the first people she shared this happy news with was her Oolagen therapist because, to quote Elizabeth, “she played a huge part in my success”.
His father left before he was born. His mother had challenges that rendered her unable to take care of him.
For his first 9 years, he learned that tantrums and provocative behaviour got him what he wanted. For the rest of his youth and most of his adolescence, he was in and out of foster and group homes—16 different ones and 100 different caregivers over the course of 10 years. Not to mention hospital stays and court appearances.
Then A.J. came to Oolagen, because he said he realized that he had hopes and dreams just like any other kids and he wanted to do whatever he could to help make them come true.
At one of Oolagen’s residential treatment homes, A.J. found people who helped him realized that those hopes and dreams were realistic. They helped him discover his strengths and talents and in his own words, “vowed to do whatever it took to help me achieve my goals”.
With Oolagen’s help and support, A.J. was able to secure and maintain a job, return to school, win an outstanding achievement award and successfully enroll in college.
For as long as he could remember, it was A.J.’s dream to become a journalist. Oolagen helped A.J. transform that dream into reality. Oolagen believed in A.J. and their belief and confidence in him helped him turn his life in a positive direction.
A.J. knows what it’s like to feel helpless, lost and alone. But now he also knows what it’s like to be a productive, contributing member of society.
My name is Marina. I’m a 17 year old from Toronto and I am living with Borderline Personality Disorder.
My mental health has always been a struggle, even before I really knew what mental illness truly was. Growing up I always felt everything so intensely that I could never really label what I was feeling. It wasn’t until the beginning of grade nine that I realized there was something was wrong. I was constantly anxious, my mood would spiral at the drop of a hat, and I always had this heavy weight on my shoulders and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was at an arts school but completely lost all the passion and motivation I once had. I was struggling with self-harm, suicidal thoughts and managing everything on my own, and people started to notice. A couple of my friends had realized I needed help and spoke up to a teacher. At the time I was furious and I resented them for telling someone about what I was going through, but looking back at it I can honestly say that they saved my life by trying to get me the help that I didn’t know I needed. I started seeing a guidance counsellor at my school and was put on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist. During the weeks of waiting for my first appointment, my mental health got worse and I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for two months. This is where my journey to recovery really began.
Over the past few years I’ve had many hospital admissions, tried countless medications, tried multiple types of therapy and worked with several doctors, none of which could settle on a diagnosis or a treatment plan that would work for me. After trying so many routes of treatment that never seemed to work, I started losing hope. I really believed that I would never get better. That I would live in constant distress forever. After being discharged from a 3 month stay at CAMH, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. When I heard the symptoms and explanation of BPD I was shocked. I finally had a diagnosis that made sense to me. I had an explanation for the things I was feeling and through learning about the disorder I learned more about myself. I decided to give my recovery one last try and I started fresh at a new therapy clinic where I started working on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT for short. I went to group every Thursday and saw a psychologist once every week. I was doubtful at first that this type of therapy would work for me, but slowly I started realizing that it was exactly what I needed. I finally had a therapist that I felt comfortable with, and she helped me find hope and faith in myself again. I made a promise to her and to myself that I would dedicate myself to life and creating a life worth living, and that was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for impacting my life in the way that she has.
I’ve now been working on DBT for two years, and it’s changed my life in ways I never thought possible. I’ve turned my experiences with mental health into a passion for music, poetry, creativity and a passion for life. I use music and poetry as healthy coping strategies and as a way to tell my story and hopefully help others. I take all my negative emotions and project them into my art, and I honestly don’t think my work would be the same if I didn’t go through everything I have. I have a job here at DYS which I am so grateful for, and I get to use my experiences with mental health to be able to reach out to others. There is so much negativity in the world, and spreading a positive message is so important to me. I find the work that Delisle does so inspiring, and what they’re doing is so important. Through my experiences with mental illness I’ve found so much love and empathy for the people around me, and I’m so passionate about mental health and the importance of taking care of your mind. I’ve had so much help along the way to where I am now, and I want to be able to do the same for someone else one day. I want to be that positive person in someone else’s life. I want to help people realize that they’re so capable of recovery and how worthy they are of happiness.
My mental illness doesn’t define me, but it will always be a part of me. Recovery is a journey, not a destination, and I’m still working on it, but I am so proud of how far I’ve come. For the first time in my life I’m living. Not in fear, but for myself.
Katie grew up with her mom, dad and younger sister in an active and happy house.
When Katie found out that her dad was gone, her mind flooded with an ocean of thoughts. Who would come to all her dance shows to cheer her on as her biggest fan? Who would help her move to university? Who would walk her down the aisle on her wedding day?
Katie quickly put these questions aside and focused on how she was going to take this situation and make something positive out of it. First, she started with a bucket list. She wrote down all the things she wanted to do before she died and posted each thing on Youtube as she completed them, while also reaching out to others by talking about her dad’s suicide. Katie took every opportunity to talk to media outlets about the importance of talking about mental health.
Katie reached out to Dale, the Delisle In-School Counsellor at her high school. After her father’s death, Katie started to visit Dale regularly to talk. Dale created a safe space for Katie to feel comfortable talking about anything, whether it was about her dad, school, or boys. Katie says that she can see that kind of relationship with every student who visits Dale, either for a one-on-one meeting or just a stop-in to get some coffee. Dale keeps his door open for everyone, and Katie knows that her school would not be the same without him.
Katie and her family were the driving force behind a walk in memory of her dad, James. The event is called James’ Journey and fundraised dollars go to Delisle Youth Services. To read more about the event, visit the James’ Journey page.
Everyday was a fight with my teachers to the point where I had a desk assigned to me in the main office. I couldn't sit still or focus on what teachers were saying so I just didn't go.
Bendale, the school I attended, placed me in a co-op program called Learn and Work. It was for troubled youth who couldn’t stay in school. I thought I wanted to be a social worker so they assigned me to Delisle.
I thought I would hate it, working in an office, having to dress up. The first week I barely spoke. I wasn’t going to ask for help or say anything.
But everyone was so welcoming and friendly. People came to check up on me and make sure I was ok. Arcangela and Christine made sure I knew what to do.
And so I started to change.
I had the chance to do so many different things: work on a staff newsletter, write an issue for the youth magazine “Speak Up”, help with administrative tasks like faxing and photocopying and handling reception, decorating the family room and reception area to make it more youth friendly, and much more.
After being here for 3 days, I was asked to join the youth engagement committee, which opened up all kinds of new opportunities.
A new youth centre called The Studio was being opened and I got to play a big part in what happened. I traveled with another co-op student to youth centres all over the city, took pictures, and learned about programming they were doing. We came back and got to help design The Studio. I helped plan the opening events and MC’d for the board and funders, and community partners.
I received training on youth engagement, which helped me organize an agency trip to a conference in Ottawa, and I am now planning an 8-week summer program for girls. I am planning the activities and budget.
If I hadn’t come to Delisle, I don’t know where I would be now. Christine encouraged me to finish high school and to apply for college.
I used to be shy and quiet; nobody believes that now. I have come out of my shell. Delisle brought me up to the door and I have walked through it into another world.
I submitted my first art piece to Delisle Youth Gallery after a counsellor from Eva's Initiatives recommended it.
It was an absolutely humbling experience to share the creative stage with countless of other talented youth across Toronto. It was even more awe-inspiring when I found out that someone was interested in purchasing my art. Since then, I have submitted my art to countless other agencies and publications. Delisle Youth Gallery made me more confident in my abilities and inspired me to take on new challenges. They provided a space for artistic expression at a time when academia is the main focus at school. Delisle was the first and foremost step in my artistic career. I would not be where I am right now without them.
Most teens are worried about what party to attend, what outfit to wear and who their friends are.
By the age of 14, I was worried about where my next meal was going to come from, trying to get to school, dealing with court, and when I was going to get high. At 15, I began attending Delisle’s Day Treatment Program. I really wasn’t ready for school and my first couple of years were rough. Then I found out that I was pregnant. I stopped using drugs and began applying all the lessons I learned at Delisle to my life. Now, in my fourth year at Delisle, I can’t see my life without it. Not only have they helped me develop skills to deal with my emotions, they’ve worked with me to finish high school and continue on to college. Delisle saved my life.
My daughter has been in the Delisle Program for just over one year. The support provided by Delisle has been one of the most significant factors in helping her to attend school on a more consistent basis again and to feel comfortable in a classroom environment.
The teachers and youth workers are a dedicated team of professionals who are invested in the success of each student. They also understand that each student will progress and succeed at his or her own rate and that there is not one ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to education. The program assures ongoing dialogue between the youth worker and parents who collaborate on support strategies.
Although she was sceptical at first, my daughter has benefited from peer support and interaction with the other students in the program. Overall, we have been very pleased with the quality of the program.
As the parent of a child who depends on Delisle, and as a former Board Member, I know how much we depend on the generosity of our donors.
I also know how carefully this organizations spends every single dollar to achieve the most effective results for as many young people as possible.
– Jim Berry, Parent, Donor, Volunteer, Former Board Member, Former Chair of Fund Development Committee
As a single parent of a child with disabilities, it is easy to fall into a downward spiral of hopelessness.
How can I afford more help? Who can help me plan for the future? Will I ever have some semblance of a normal life? It is sometimes hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The Delisle Special Needs Team has been that welcome light. They provided us with a dedicated social worker, respite relief funding, and counselling around short and long term planning. Thanks to their support, my family can now function with considerably less stress and fatigue. Delisle has been a lifeline.
– Lucinda, Mother of a Special Needs Child
There is no way I would be who I am today if it hadn't been for Delisle.
When I was 16, I packed all my belongings into two garbage bags and left home. My father’s drinking was increasing and he became abusive and violent. My school situation fell apart. I went from being a good student to failing all my classes. I started hanging out with all the wrong people and experimenting with drugs. I had to get out. I was lucky. A guidance counsellor at school told me about Delisle and I moved into their residence. At first it was strange being in a group home, but the longer I stayed, the more I trusted it. Thestaff were consistent, fair and predictable. They took the time to listen to me and supported my decisions. There is no way I would be who I am today if it hadn’t been for Delisle. I would be dead or in jail. Delisle does work. I know it first-hand and I see it everyday in my work.
– Angelo Sartor, Delisle In-School Counsellor and Delisle Client from 1980-1981
Our daughter attended Delisle's school program in the early 1990s.
The teachers and other staff made a meaningful difference in her life. They helped her see that she was capable and had skills of value. They challenged her to take risks and develop new strengths. This year, she got her Masters degree in Expressive Art Therapy with a Social Change Intention. She is starting a new job with an alternate high school program this fall. Thank you!
– Delisle Donor/Parent of a Former DYS Youth
Side 3 has had the pleasure of performing at several fund raising events
for Delisle Youth Services over the past few years. Side 3 works only for charitable causes we believe in, and Delisle is a natural for us since it is provides critical services to children and youth within our own communities. We have continually been impressed with the professionalism of the staff at Delisle. They make our job easier by going to great lengths to ensure that our needs are met, enabling us to do the best job we can for them. Their events are always a huge success, and we look forward to the next opportunity to work with them again.
– Side 3
Families are the foundation of our society
and as such the health of our society’s families and children are fundamental to the overall health of our society. Delisle Youth Services provides essential services to families and children in need. As the old adage goes the best defence is a great offence. The Delisle team is first rate and their results are impressive as they utilize scarce resources and provide outstanding results. I am proud to support such a terrific organization.
– Steven Campbell, Owner of Lifford Wine Agency