ALERT BAY — The writer Thomas Wolfe once declared, “You can’t go home again.”
Alert Bay native Richard Mountain found otherwise last weekend when he returned to his birthplace decades after moving to Vancouver with his parents as a youth.
Recently homeless on the streets of East Vancouver, Mountain returned to Cormorant Island to compete in the 53rd annual June Sports Soccer Tournament with other members of Portland FC. The team, made up of recent or current homeless players, is sponsored by Vancouver’s Portland Hotel Society, which provides a shelter and counseling services in the city.
“This has been the greatest experience I’ve ever had,” said Mountain, who was reunited with several family members and met many more for the first time. “We’re going to try to make this an annual thing.”
The Portland club, a co-ed group of players ranging in age from 20 to 54, was overwhelmed by the welcome and treatment they received during their stay.
The team was housed in the Alert Bay Community Centre, and well-wishers continually stopped by with food and gifts.
“We were provided accomodations, and people kept coming with food,” said Dominique Falls, who coached the team and played sweeper in Saturday’s contest against the North Island Selects. “We brought our own food, but they gave us another 12 bags. We were blown away.”
The Portland Hotel Society began a few years ago by opening a shelter in East Vancouver after several homeless people died during a brutal cold snap. Residents began playing soccer informally, and the play grew into the creation of a street soccer league with seven teams, including the Portland FC men’s team and Portland Phoenix women’s club.
Eight of the Portland players were part of a B.C. entry last summer in the Homeless World Cup, held in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
“Street soccer has given us a sense of belonging,” said Robert Milton, who played during the 10-day trip to Brazil. “Two years ago, none of us knew each other, but the game has brought us into a family.
“We’re not outcasts anymore in our community.”
Most of the players came into the program with some form of substance-abuse issue. But Portland volunteer Kailin See said the society remains non-judgemental and inclusive for those who want to take part.
“You don’t have to be on your best game. You don’t even have to be clean,” See said.
Paula Armstrong, the oldest player on the team at 54, credits her involvement with the Phoenix with helping her clean up.
“Last September I had 28 per cent lung function,” Armstrong said. “I quit smoking and got it up to 50 per cent. Then I quit all substances, and it’s up to 68 per cent, with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).”
After their final game Saturday, the players gathered the children that made up part of their traveling group and posed for photos.
They had one more surprise waiting when they approached the Yalis elders raffle table to thank the local residents for their stay. ‘Namgis elder Bill Wasden produced a bucket the elders had passed around for a collection, and pressed $109 into See’s hands as a donation to the Portland society.
After thanking and hugging Wasden,
See broke into tears at the act of generosity.
“Hey,” Wasden said, “there’s no crying in soccer.”