“I love working with these kids, sharing what I know, seeing their smiles,” says the former cocaine addict-turned-baker-turned-cooking instructor. It was not an easy journey for Gordon who got into trouble at a young age and ran away from his problems, all the way to the drug alleys of Toronto.
His cocaine addiction started in his mid-20s and within a few years, he was homeless. In 2004, he was on welfare when he heard about an apprentice program at St. John’s Bakery. So he worked volunteer hours and after six months, he was hired on as a paid employee but his problems continued to haunt him. He began missing days and using his pay cheque to get high.
“The problem was that I wasn’t finished with crack and so I’d miss work, I was unreliable and they had no choice but to fire me,” he remembers. “But they did leave the door ajar. The owner said if I cleaned up my act, they might take me back. He made me promise to call him once a month to let him know how I was doing.”
So it was back to life on the streets. “I found myself in the alleyways of Dundas and Sherbourne smoking crack, then waiting for the liquor store to open and then starting the cycle all over again,” says Gordon. But life on the streets is tough and he decided to check into CAMH. After one stint in 1989, he returned to rehab again in 2005 and this time, it stuck.
He signed up for a cocaine specific relapse prevention program at CAMH and that put him on the road to lasting recovery. He got his job back at the bakery and the people at Transition House helped him adjust to his new life. Spending countless hours at the library, he began to learn about his addiction and took more control of his life but it was the death of his brother who battled alcoholism that was the real catalyst for change. “That was a shock to the system and really gave me a real reason to make a change,” Gordon says.
His doctor had suggested the best thing for addicts is to do things non-addicted people do like develop a hobby or join a gym. That was the prescription Gordon needed and he moved out of his old neighbourhood to the Beaches area in Toronto for a fresh start. He joined the gym at a community centre and started volunteering. “I realized that I was getting better because I was finally following my doctor’s advice and began to fill my time with positive things,” Gordon admits.
The local community centre became a second home to him and he worked out religiously. Then one day, he was asked if he was interested in teaching a weekly children’s cooking class as staff knew he had attended the cooking school at George Brown College. “I could see that I had built some trust in the neighbourhood and I also had to face my past so I could move forward. This was my chance to do that,” Brown says.
To work with children, he had to pass a police check so he was forced to explain his history of addiction. Armed with references from agencies including the United Way where he had volunteered, he faced his past head-on. “It was a chance to let people know - what you see is what I did in the past, it’s what I’m doing today that counts,” he says.
And he makes each day count. Every spare moment when he’s not teaching 55 kids in seven classes a week how to julienne carrots or make a fruit salad, he volunteers with the United Way of Greater Toronto. He shares his story to give back to those who helped him - to raise funds to support organizations in the community like Transition House.
“Gord doesn't shy away from the story of his past when he is asked but when necessary, he uses it as a lesson for the youth who desperately need to see the dangerous reality of bad decisions and the purpose of these recreation facilities,” says Frank Domagala, community recreation programmer, City of Toronto. “Gord has made us all proud in the community, not only because of his commitment but his example of turning things around. For anyone trying to make it through a tough episode in their lives at any age, (his story) shows it’s never too late to change that direction.”
From speaking to staff at CAMH during United Way week to working a room full of bankers to support community programs, Gordon is eager to let people know that recovery is possible. “I had a lot of people help me along the way – CAMH, the United Way, Transition House. They all had a lot to do with my journey and how it has turned out. I’m lucky they were there for me.”