Helping hands: Long-time Edmonton volunteer on his decades of giving back

Neil Kennedy in his home, with portraits he’s collected over the years of less-fortunate people. Kennedy was once homeless himself but now has dedicated his life to helping others in need. (Photo courtesy KTB Photography)

Through helping others, Neil Kennedy found the strength to save himself.

Staring at the faces of homeless folk he’s known over the years, Kennedy laments that the portraits on his wall were bound for the garbage bin if he didn’t intervene. Kennedy was volunteering at the Bissell Centre ahead of renovations when he stumbled upon the pictures and took them home.

Some photos date back as far as 25 years — about the same length of time Kennedy has been volunteering, working and living in Edmonton’s inner city. The faces draw you in, with each one daring you to display indifference.

Most of the people in the photos are no longer around. It’s a fate Kennedy could have met if he continued on the path he was on.

“If pictures could talk, you’d hear a lot of stories,” Kennedy says. “These are priceless; these people aren’t just homeless, but faceless and voiceless.”

Having spent about five years without a home, Kennedy has walked in their shoes. He remembers sleeping in the river valley in his truck and having a friend slide $5 in the crack of his window.

“He’d say, put some gas in your truck, because we need you,” Kennedy recalls. “He wanted me to stay warm. So I could wake up in the morning and get out and help again.”

For nearly half his life, Kennedy, 56, has been deeply involved with the inner city and Edmonton’s homeless. He’s volunteered at Boyle Street Community Services, The Mustard Seed as well as the Bissell Centre, where he was also employed for years in various departments. Today he runs several initiatives of his own focused on helping homeless and low-income people.

He first started volunteering in his 20s by cleaning up tables after he’d eaten a free meal at The Mustard Seed.

After more than two decades of volunteering and working in Edmonton’s inner city, Neil Kennedy still keeps busy by assisting at a women’s rooming house, helping with a food program for homeless and low-income Edmontonians and handing out necessities to those in need on a regular basis. (Photo courtesy KTB Photography)

“My first volunteer stint was because I was feeling guilty, because I was eating somewhere for free,” Kennedy said.  “And I was thinking, ‘I should be providing my own. Why am I in this soup line? Why am I sleeping on this mat?’”

The question “why” haunts many people on the street. Most can look back to normal lives before various circumstances trapped them in a cycle of poverty.

Kennedy had a happy childhood, but things took a turn for the worse after he lost his father at 12 due to an accidental gunshot wound. When his family moved to Edmonton from Hylo, Alta., his mother started drinking to deal with the pain of her loss.

Kennedy turned to drugs in his teens. Throughout his youth he struggled with substance abuse, crime and thoughts of suicide.

And there were other demons in Kennedy’s closet. As a young boy, he was sexually molested in Hylo by a man who pretended they were playing “hide and seek.”

“I didn’t realize I was sexually abused until I saw The Boys of St. Vincent at 18. And then I go, ‘Oh my God, that’s what happened to me,’” he said. “It interfered a lot with my education. I shut a lot of things out because of that experience. I just wanted to throw it on the backburner and burn it.”

The abuse he endured as a child is one reason he became addicted to crack cocaine as an adult. As a result, he couldn’t hold down a job.

“That was my way of numbing,” Kennedy said. “I was always making some money then going to get high or drunk and go missing. Or get fired.”

He managed to quit crack cocaine in 2009 after it contributed to his sister’s death. He realized if he didn’t, he would be next. And he knew he had something to contribute.

“When I first decided I was worth something is when I started volunteering and giving back to my community. I realized, ‘Hey, you can do something. You’re not worthless.’”

For his time giving back, Kennedy has received recognition from all levels of government, including a plaque from the Governer General of Canada on behalf of the Queen, as well as from a wide range of agencies in Edmonton.

Kennedy is semi-retired now but still keeps busy in the inner city. He assists at a women’s rooming house, participates in a food program for low-income people called Collective Kitchen and regularly goes on walks during which he hands out toques and socks to the less fortunate.

“I guess I just love people,” he offers by way of explanation. “I can’t turn my back.”

This story was originally published in Metro Edmonton. 

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