For three decades, Kate Lister has volunteered her time to make sure people struggling with chronic mental illness have decent places to call home.
During that time, her work with organizations in Abbotsford and Chilliwack has helped secure 50 units of affordable housing, and this year Lister is being honoured with Chilliwack's Woman of the Year Award for her tireless efforts.
But none of that would have happened if her son-a "wonderful, bright, active, athletic and artistic" 20-year-old-had not developed schizophrenia during his first year of university back the in early 1980s.
"It was terrifying," she said. "It was devastating because it really takes their whole life."
Early on, however, Lister decided not to let her devastation and sense of helplessness stop her from doing something.
"My first thought was, 'Well, I can't make him better, so what shall I do?'" she said.
At that time, most people struggling with chronic mental illness depended on a disability pension that included only a $325 housing allowance, and Lister saw first hand how central the issue of decent housing was for people like her son.
"All they ended up living in was really frightening places that had people that were either drug addicts or they were people that took advantage of them, and they cut up the house into four, five or six rooms," she said. "They had to manage this terrible illness and they had to live in these terrible places. And that really resonated with me."
With another member of the Abbotsford B.C. Schizophrenia Society (there was no such group in Chilliwack at the time), Lister soon set about lobbying B.C. Housing for funding.
Since Abbotsford BCSS was just a small support group with no financial expertise or administrative capacity, they partnered with Abbotsford Community Services and eventually saw the construction in 1986 of the Nelson Apartments, an eight-unit block of affordable housing for people like her son.
"When it actually was built and we had the opening, we were as surprised as anybody that it was actually there," Lister said.
In 1991, she brought her experience to the Chilliwack Supportive Housing Society (CSHS), a group of local family members of people with chronic mental illness dedicated to providing affordable housing.
Its first project was the Canfield Apartments, a 10-unit block completed in 1993.
But that wasn't enough for Lister and her group, which has since purchased nine additional single suites in privately owned apartment blocks.
With enough funding from BC Housing to pay nine small mortgages and strata fees, CSHS volunteers manage and raise funds for repairs for all the apartments, renting them to clients at a shelter-allowance rate.
Along with her work with CSHS, Lister is also active on the board of the Creative Centre Society, which partnered with BC Housing and Chilliwack Community Services to build The Village, the four-storey building on School Street put together using modular units that once provided athletes with accommodations during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Para-lympic Winter Games.
Opened in 2011, The Village includes 22 units of affordable housing for people struggling with chronic mental illness.
Helping to meet the needs of people who battle the same kinds of devastating diseases that gripped her son so many years ago has been rewarding for Lister, and she hopes her Woman of the Year Award draws more attention to the ongoing work of the CSHS.
Personally, though, she's not exactly comfortable with the attention.
"I'm a little embarrassed because there's so many people doing so much," she said. "But I think it's really really sweet of them to give me the award."
? Woman of the Year is a City of Chilliwack award, but Lister will be honoured at a ceremony April 24 organized by the Chilliwack Soropti-mist Club, which will also hand out two awards of its own.
G.W. Graham Grade 12 student Brittany Clough will be presented with the $1,000 Violet Richardson Award, given annually to a young woman who demonstrates leadership and volunteerism among her peers.
And Rebecca Lin will be given the $2,500 Woman's Opportunity Award, presented annually to a woman who is the sole breadwinner of her family to further her education.
The award ceremony will be held at the City of Chilliwack Council Chambers (8550 Young Road), starting at 6 p.m. a reception and the presentation at 7 p.m.
© Copyright 2013