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Restoring Dreams in Central Hamilton
Joy and Ace Clark and the many volunteers at the Dream Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, see themselves as vessels of God’s love for thirsty souls.

Lisa Bechard was a well-known fixture at the inner-city crack-house. "All my life, I've been involved with selling and using drugs;' says Bechard, mother to a 17-year-old daughter.

"It was so nice to be around people who cared. There's a sense of belonging at the Dream Center!"

Four years ago, while fighting a $1,000/day crack-cocaine habit, the Hamilton woman decided to seek help.

"I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired," she states. "I'd tried to get sober in the past, doing it my own way, and that didn't work."

As a result, in December' of 2006, while serving time in detox, Bechard picked up a Bible and began to read.

Upon release, she visited The Joshua Center church, having learned of the pastor's testimony through friends. "I had heard that Pastor Ace was a biker, and I thought, if God accepts bikers, maybe He'll accept me:'

Not only did people at the church make Lisa feel loved and accepted; when prayed over, she was delivered from a lifelong addiction to drugs. "I decided to try the Lord, and it worked instantly," she recalls. "I wept, and felt cleansed. A big burden left me.”

Following her deliverance, Bechard began to volunteer at The Hamilton Dream Center—a food and clothing mission founded by Pastors Ace and Joy Clarke.

"I'm used to being around people who are high or drunk," says Bechard. "It was so nice to be around people who cared. There's a sense of belonging at the Dream Center!"

It's for this reason that Ace and Joy founded The Hamilton Dream Center.

"About a year after we founded The Joshua Center, we realized that we needed to be able to help the people of our community in a greater way," explains Joy, a 56-year-old grandmother of six.

After learning of The Los Angeles Dream Center while attending a conference in Arizona, Ace knew "that was the next step for us."

Returning home, the 66-year-old evangelist purchased the building across from his church. "We started about six years ago in a small room in the basement of the building," Ace relates. "We had just a few items and decided to give it away and trust the Lord to multiply it. He did!"

Today, The Dream Center serves roughly 150 families, or 600 individuals, each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"I have had the pleasure of being here from the beginning of this great work,” says volunteer Gerda Aserian. "They started with just one or two rooms in the basement. It has grown in bounds and leaps!"

Aserian is one of 30 individuals that volunteer their time organizing and shelving clothing, cleaning supplies, and $600,000 worth of reclaimed food (supplied by A&P stores) every year.

"Our clients say we're the best food bank in the city,” says Executive Director Rebekah Hill, one of Ace and Joy's three children.

Not only is The Center known for its generosity; it's famous for its Dream Dollars, which allow clients—all of whom have a home—to shop for supplies. "Coming to a food bank is not fun," acknowledges Hill, "so if we give them a dollar amount and they're allowed to choose their items, it makes the clients feel more normal—like they're grocery shopping. It also helps them to learn budgeting!"

Jim White, a former ironworker now on Disability, appreciates the dignity of the dollars.

"The Center helps me get through to the end of the month," says White. "They let me do my own shopping there, picking out what food I need, versus other places which give you what you don't need!'

In addition to discovering Dream Dollars, White found faith.

In addition to discovering Dream Dollars, White found faith.

"I met Pastor Ace when I started volunteering!' he recalls. Six months later, Jim and his wife, Michelle began attending The Joshua Center. There, they realized God loved them.

"Pastor Ace took me aside one day, and he prayed the same prayer for me as had been prayed for him," says White, who has served time for attempted murder. "That changed me. I've calmed down. I've become more caring towards people, because I know where they're coming from."

Other volunteers like John and Ellie Voortman may not know where clients are coming from, but they give, nonetheless. Former owners of Ancaster's Oakrun Farm Bakery, the now-retired couple bakes bread for The Center on a regular basis.

"We've seen the work of The Center, and the impact it has on the neighbourhood," says Ellie. "We're impressed, and continue to promote it whenever possible!'

In addition to stocking supplies, Dream Center volunteers clean up the neighbourhood as part of the Servants in the Hood program. Situated in "Crack Central!” The Center is surrounded by streets filled with needles, porn, crack pipes and feces. "I believe in making this neighbourhood a cleaner place to live!' says Hill, who hopes that, as a result of the program, volunteers will earn the right to speak into people's lives.

Bechard has already earned that right, having "been there, done that," and because of this, The Center hopes to partner with her in starting an in-house rehab program for women. Next to Teen Challenge's Toronto initiative, no other provincial in-house resource exists for women struggling with addiction.

"Our 'dream' for The Center is to be more than just providing food and clothing,” says Ace. "Although, that has helped us establish a rapport with the people, we want to go to the next step in helping get them out of the lifestyle that is so damaging to them."

This is where Bechard comes in.

"Lisa has a big heart for women in addiction," says Hill. "She's not afraid to offer her coat to a woman who doesn't have one, or give away whatever she has. Women on the street respect her. They know she's not a fake, and take what she says to heart. We're going to team up with her and help women get off the streets."

Unfortunately, The Center is unable to pursue this goal until its building is paid off.

"We don't want to jump into anything before God says to move,” Hill explains. Nevertheless, she plans to spend 2010 focusing on Hamilton's female sex trade workers—many of whom work off church steps soon after the worshippers leave.

"You'll see a girl come out of her house and prostitute herself, and then go back inside for crack,” says Beth Fish, who together with her husband Jim, volunteers her photography services to the Center. "They're beautiful people, caught in a web they don't know how to get out of."

Having worked for The Globe and Mail as a photo-journalist for 30 years, and been awarded four Worlds, six Canadians and 15 Americans, Jim began donating his time to The Center four years ago as a way of saying thank you to God "for the wonderful career he gave me."

People in the city are starving, says Jim. "You can see it in their faces—many of whom I'd like to photograph, but they're private, and I don't want to humiliate them."

He is grateful for people like Ace and Joy, who help alleviate such poverty, and together with his wife, volunteers his services multiple times each year as photographer for various Dream Center functions.

“A picture can say a thousand words,” relates Beth. "You can look at people's faces in a photo and wonder, Wow, is that really happening in my city? Am I really walking away from this?

"We need to remember, whatever circumstances have got them there, they're still human beings. They still need love, they still need food, and they still need to be cared for."

To find out more about The Hamilton Dream Center, call 905-527-8605 or visit www.hamiltondreamcenter.org.

Emily Wierenga is an author based in Neerlandia, Alberta. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.

Originally published in Beacon, September/October 2010.

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