Paul Mackle's lifework came into sharp focus the day a hiker collapsed on the trail in front of him. He was having a seizure brought on by alcohol withdrawal. As Mackle held him and the seizure began to subside, the man looked up at him and said, "See, I told you I'm not drinking anymore."
A street to Trail program takes homeless people on four-and five-day canoe trips in the wilderness, where they can be inspired to break bad habits, improve self-confidence and institute changes in their lives.
For Mackle, the incident demonstrated just how powerful a motivator his Street to Trail program had become. The experience had prompted a hardened street person to re-examine his life of drinking and quit cold turkey, after he had been booted off an earlier trip for getting drunk.
"Those eyes burn into me," says Mackle, referring to his client's deep-set desire to break the cycle of poverty and institute some real changes to get off the street. The Street to Trail Association promotes those changes by taking street people into the wilderness, where they can break old habits and build their self-confidence.
Mackle, 47, has long been a competent outdoorsman, having refined his hiking, camping and canoeing skills through the Scouts movement. While volunteering for some downtown Toronto aid agencies, he realized disenfranchised street people could benefit from the life-affirming buzz of a good old-fashioned canoe trip.
"People kept telling me how good they felt when they went hiking," says Mackle, who has led recreational hikes on the Bruce Trail.
"When you feel good, you get motivated to do all kinds of things. I figured this was exactly the kind of thing street people needed to experience."
Mackle himself suffered a setback five years ago after his divorce. It spurred him to make some changes of his own. Having worked in home construction for 20 years, he wanted to become a building inspector and enjoy a more regular 9-to-5 work schedule.
But Mackle realized he needed to go back to school to improve his reading and writing skills.
"I didn't even know how to turn on a computer," he recalls.
In 1999, he enrolled in Literacy and Basic Skills at Centennial College, a tuition-free program that helps adults 19 or older upgrade their communications, mathematics and computer skills to prepare them for employability or further college studies.
By the time he was done, he had already led his first backpacking adventure.
"As I learned more about creative writing at Centennial, I started writing down my idea and showing people," Mackle says.
He eventually wrote a proposal for funding, and Street to Trail was born.
Since its inception four years ago, Street to Trail has raised funds to take hundreds of street people on day hikes and on four-day canoe trips in the
Muskoka and Kawartha regions year-round.
The public can go, too; the $50 per day camping fee subsidizes the cost of food for non-paying participants.
"We plan four or five major canoe trips per year, while the day hikes take place every few weeks, when funds allow," Mackle says.
Street people who do well on the day trips are invited on the canoe trips -- but not without making a sacrifice of their own, such as promising to look for a job or quit drinking.
"Advancement in their own lives is rewarded with bigger trips. It works," says Mackle, who knows of five people who have gotten off the street permanently, thanks to his program. "That saves the government $35,000 every time a person leaves the street."
He counts Mountain Equipment Co-op and real estate investor David Walsh among his supporters. But Mackle is looking for more help with the enormous task at hand: "I used to build houses. Now I build people's lives."
For more information about how you can help Street to Trail -- by going on a fee-paying trip, volunteering your time or making a donation -- visit the website: www.street-to-trail.com
or call 416-532-0983.
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