For nearly twenty years, Father John has been volunteering with the youth in rehabilitation treatment at Portage Elora. Known affectionately at the centre as FJ, Father John believes that it is his job to seek out what is remarkable about each of the youth in treatment, and help them to see the beauty and strength within themselves. At 82 years of age, he is a vibrant and magnetic force in the community; and youth and staff members alike are very grateful for his support and reassurance.
“If someone’s in a negative headspace he helps to get them out of it. He’s supportive and has a gift of validating other people’s feelings,” explains Amy, one of the counsellors at Portage. “He’s very charismatic, genuine, and kind. He’s open to other people’s lifestyles, and he encourages youth to connect with whatever works for them.” This knack for building a personal rapport with everyone he meets endears Father John to the youth and staff members.
Even on the coldest of days, Father John gets in the car and makes the short drive to the centre to visit the youth before the school day officially begins. His daily attendance at the morning meetings is appreciated. “We get really excited to see him, and we always listen to what he has to say,” says Tina, one of the youth currently in treatment. He drives home after the morning meetings only to return again in the afternoon for the free time period, where he will play checkers and discuss current issues and spirituality with the youth.
Having been put up for adoption as a three year old and having struggled with the feelings of rejection and abandonment that ensued, Father John can relate to some of the hardships and negative emotions that the youth in treatment are trying to deal with. He states that, “in times of fear and anger, [my adoptive parents] never gave up on me,” and he in turn strives to in some way be a rock for others as they work through their struggles.
“Father John is an older man,” says Daniel, a Portage Elora resident, “but he gives us all props when we meet. He tries to get involved in what we are doing, and we play chess or dominos. He believes in second chances and helping others out. He’s never judged anyone, and that’s why a lot of the guys feel so comfortable around him.”
Father John first got involved with Portage when he was invited to attend a Bible study discussion at the centre. He met a young man who confessed to him that, although he had read the Bible in jail, he never fully understood it. This conversation sparked Father John’s interest in sharing the gospel, in addition to reaching out to those in need of guidance and support.
In addition to being the office administrator and preacher at the St John’s Anglican Church in Elora, Father John runs an acolyte program for the young men at Portage as well as a program in which the Portage youth can assist with Sunday School service. If they don’t believe in God, that’s okay with him too. “I tell them, ‘God believes in you, so don’t worry about it. But if you want to get involved, then great. The church is like a family.’”
Father John is a Spiritual Advisor to Portage staff as well as the youth, so when staff members are looking weary, he praises them. “We forget to praise one another. It makes such a difference for people’s self-worth,” he says. He considers his experience volunteering at Portage a blessing, and calls the centre a second home.
His dream for the youth at Portage is that each person goes on to lead a new life full of courage and hope, and that they develop their self-esteem and a vision for their future. “You may not be able to change the past,” he says, “but you can change the future.”
In November 2012, Father John was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his volunteer work with youth and staff at Portage Ontario. In his quiet, modest way, Father John didn’t tell anyone about the award until three months after receiving it.
Kind, compassionate, easy going, open minded, remarkable, and “cool” are many words that have been used to describe him. However, Jessie, a current resident at Portage, may have put it best when he simply said “Father John brings happiness to my life.”