In the words of founder Gordon Harper

My initial visit (yes, there would be more) to the old detox on Pemberton Road was my first meaningful contact with the addictions system of care. I almost turned away at the doorstep, burdened as I was by fear and anger and shame – lots of shame! I halfway expected to be treated with the same level of disgust and disdain that I felt toward myself. Imagine my surprise, then, as I was met with respect and compassion and offered the very best in medical care to ease me through withdrawal. The whole experience was totally refreshing; it was a wonderful and encouraging first step on my journey of recovery.

Now, fast forward a few years…

I had a bit of solid sobriety under my belt and was helping increasing numbers of people with their recovery, just as others had helped me. Of course, I often directed those who were struggling with substance use issues toward detox. I believed then, as I do today, that it’s a great starting point for the many changes yet to come.

One day, there was an opening on the Board of Directors of the large non-profit, DARS, that ran the detox; I jumped at the chance and was quickly accepted. There had been some instability within the organization and, without really giving it much consideration, I soon found myself in the role of Board Chair. Yikes!

Things were quite turbulent for a while, but eventually settled down. Buoyed by this experience, I began to seek out other opportunities. A colleague had heard about an innovative program in the mental health system and encouraged me to check it out.

Anne Bowles was a manager in the Capital Health Region’s Mental Health Services and a bit of a visionary. She had found room in her office and in her budget for a program based upon the idea that people with mental illness could make important contributions to the system that supports them and that they could, in fact, effectively support one another. (The REES Program, created by Anne in partnership with people living with mental illness, continues to this day. Now operated by the Victoria Cool Aid Society and with a host of additional ways to support the vulnerable people it serves, REES is an enthusiastic collaborator with Umbrella. The very successful Community Volunteer Training Program was designed, and is delivered today by these two peer agencies.)

Anne could easily sense my excitement, and agreed to fund a one-day workshop to see if there was interest in the community to start a similar program, but with an addiction focus. There was, of course, and the Regional Addictions Advocacy Society was born.

Aaaaah….. Five directors, each with his or her own idea of what this brand new little non-profit should do. And no funding. What could go wrong?

Well, as it happened, nothing much. We all kept on doing what we had been doing before and mostly wandered off in different directions. The number of calls from people looking for help increased. I had begun to develop some skill in helping others to navigate the addictions system. And then that very system underwent a seismic shift!
The brand-new Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) had been formed from the three Health Regions that had served previously the population of Vancouver Island. And Addictions Services, which had long been wandering from one government ministry to the next, was finally brought into the health care system and parked right alongside Mental Health.

It was not immediately a happy marriage. But, in that unhappiness, there was opportunity. The initiative that sought to smooth the integration of mental health and addictions opened any numbers of doors and introduced me to any number of brilliant people, all with the same level of commitment to making both services work better. Many of these folks have continued to be stalwart supporters of Umbrella since that time.

VIHA continued to alter the addictions landscape in dramatic ways. This new health care organization decided that it would no longer fund the residential addictions treatment centre here in Victoria. And it also planned to take over DARS, the detox non-profit, and the Dallas Society, which had provided out-patient addictions treatment for many years.

But Margaret McNeil, Director of VIHA’s Mental Health and Addictions Services, and Alan Campbell, Manager in that same system, had been impressed by the enthusiasm and level of commitment demonstrated by the board members of those agencies that were about to disappear. Departing members of the DARS Board pleaded for some financial support so that they could continue to do good in our community, and that plea was answered with a one-time grant from the Health Authority.

All of this led to changes on the Board of Directors of the Regional Addictions Advocacy Society. Jocelyn Harder (former Chair of the Dallas Society) became Board Chair, and Kevin Worth, Grant Bolton, and Diane Mouner-Browning from DARS all joined me as Directors. These imaginative men and women were soon joined by Marianne Ostopovich and David Kyle and, together they provided the impetus to take this small non-profit to the next level.

Around this time, the Archie Courtnall Centre (Psychiatric Emergency Services) opened on the campus of the Royal Jubilee Hospital. Although intended primarily to serve folks in mental health crisis, staff soon noticed that they were seeing more and more people for whom substance use had become a big problem. Kirsten Duncan, the social worker at this new resource, invited me to see if, working together, we could make a difference in the lives of these patients. We had some immediate success, and soon I began to get calls from social workers from other parts of RJH, and the area’s other two hospitals. Patients who had been hospitalized because of their substance use issues were amazed that someone, who just might be able to help them bring about much-needed changes, would come to visit them in hospital. And they were even more amazed when they learned that we would also follow up with them when they returned to the community.

What had started as one man helping another had quickly grown into much more than that. Our peer outreach model was working!

More changes soon happened in rapid-fire order. I resigned from the Board of Directors to become the organization’s first employee. I had pretty much been living on a credit card up to that point, so receiving a salary seemed a bit weird. But really great!

Regrettably, we still had no ongoing funding. We didn’t even have a website yet. The Board was concerned that, even though we were busy, we hadn’t yet caught the attention of those in a position to ensure the sustainability of the organization. In a bold move intended to make us more conspicuous in the community, the Board agreed to hire someone to rebrand our little organization. We really liked the approach of Trapeze Communications, and they seemed to quickly understand our needs. After a few false starts, brilliant young designer Neil Tran presented us with a concept that had us all grinning from ear to ear. It looked like this…

And just like that, we became Umbrella. The rest, as they say, is history!

(Of course, many other people were influential in the early days of this mighty little organization; some in big ways, and some in small. I regret that I could not mention all of them here. But I’m grateful. We’re all so grateful!)