Calgarian sees the positive after homeless experience

Reasons for thanks abound

By Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald

Tasha Brown - with her husband Oliver Okennah and her three children, Domanik, 10, Delilah, 16, and Diante, 12 - is speaking out on the issue of homelessness. Photo: Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald

Her date was more than a half-hour late. As she walked out of the coffee shop, Tasha Brown made an uncharacteristic decision.

"I was throwing in the towel," she says with a laugh of her fleeting moment of defeat. "Just then, I looked up and saw the most handsome, tall man walking towards me."

That chance encounter earlier this year between a single mom and a new Canadian turned into a two-hour-long, impromptu coffee date. "We were together every single day from that moment on," says the 34-year-old Brown. "I pretty well knew Oliver was the one after a couple of dates."

On Sept. 29, Tasha Brown and 33-year-old Oliver Okennah were married in a northwest Calgary church, before close to 200 cheering friends and community supporters. Despite the couple's humble $1,000 wedding budget - her flowing gown was a gift from a friend, while others pitched in with such accessories as flowers and table decorations - it was a grand affair.

Anyone familiar with her can-do spirit would have little doubt Brown could pull it off. "I don't like to think about limits," she says with a chuckle as we chat in her Erin Woods home on Friday. "You've got to keep positive and work with what you have."

Brown first came to the attention of Herald readers Thanksgiving of 2006, when I was assigned the task of talking to people who knew first-hand the challenges of being homeless on Calgary streets. When I put in a request at the charitable organization CUPS Health and Educational Centre to help me find someone who could speak on homeless families, Brown was the only one who volunteered.

"I had nothing to be ashamed of," she says of that day six years ago. "We went without a home for only three months, but it was a devastating experience that had lasting effects. I really felt people needed to understand what it was like for us."

At the time, Brown was a single mother of three, who after being swindled out of a damage deposit - the man renting wasn't the real owner - found herself a client of such local agencies as Inn From the Cold and CUPS. Those long months were spent in church basements by night and CUPS' family resource centre by day.

Brown's no-holds-barred story of having to read bedtime stories to her kids from a cot in a gymnasium, as well as the stigma they experienced at school, struck a chord with readers.

"I was overwhelmed by people's generosity," says Brown, who was offered a rental home at an affordable rate, among many other generous donations.

Soon, buoyed by the experience, Brown and her then-15-year-old daughter Delilah began speaking publicly about their experiences and were profiled in a documentary on homelessness; Delilah was later selected as a finalist for "Top 20 under 20," a national program sponsored by the national non-profit organization Youth in Motion.

"A lot of great things came about by speaking out," says Brown, who began working for CUPS in its family resource centre. The support she received gave her the confidence to strive for even more: in 2009, she took a program sponsored by Momentum, a local non-profit organization run by the Mennonite Central Committee. That program got her in touch with representatives from the Own Hart Home Owners Program, which matched, at a ratio of four to one, what she was able to save for a down payment.

Last year, she and her kids moved into their three-bedroom townhouse. "We even got the dog," she says with a smile of Officer, their ab cross. "People take for granted having a roof over their heads, but without it, it's pretty hard to get anywhere."

Brown, who continues her work today with CUPS in its intake area, feels she can be an inspiration for those desperate clients who walk in the door.

"I understand why so many turn to such self-destructive things as addiction," says the non-drinker who was recently profiled in a book for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Susan Scott's The Beginning of the End. "I've walked in their shoes, so I understand what they're up against."

These days, she is busy with writing a book on her experience of homelessness - "I want my kids to know what I was thinking and I want people to understand what goes on when you're in this situation" - while happily settling in to married life.

"We're saving up to go to Nigeria, where Oliver is from," she says. "I want to meet my new family."

Meanwhile, she says this Thanksgiving she will think of all the richness of her life that came out of her own courage to speak out those six years ago.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have, how important you are, what kind of car you drive," says the gal who'll soon go by the name Tasha Okennah.

"What matters is who is sitting around your table - that you're loved and doing your best with what God has given you."