Jean Scarabin styles the hair of Ashlynn Parsons at Anne’s House in Montreal on April 22, 2016. Scarabin, who works on movie sets, volunteers one afternoon a month to cut and style the hair of residents of the house, which provides apartments for 30 women who struggle with mental-health issues, addictions and homelessness. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette
As a professional hairstylist, Jean Scarabin works mainly on Montreal movie sets. It’s a good job, if a stressful one, with long hours – workdays can start at 4 a.m. – and stars who can be demanding. Another thing about the work: “It brings nothing to anyone. It’s entertainment.”
He needed something more in his life.
And so Scarabin, 31, signed on as a volunteer at Anne’s House, a residence for women in distress. One Friday each month he arrives at noon in the community room of the Shaughnessy Village apartment building, wheeling a small bag packed with the tools of his trade: scissors, razor, brushes, combs, hair dryer. He spends the next five hours styling, cutting and colouring the hair of residents who have signed up for his visits. A few, like Michelle Lorjé, keep their heads shaved and wear wigs; the day we visited, he buzzed her head with a razor, complimenting the shape of her head, and braided her wig.
“I am happy to do hair. It is my passion,” Scarabin said. “And what I do here helps the women here.”
Then, there’s this: volunteering helps give meaning to his own life.
“If you can make even a minuscule difference in the world, then do it,” Scarabin said as he trimmed the ends of Ashlinn Parsons’s light brown hair. Seated at a small table before a mirror, the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce native described how her hair had come in softer when it grew back after leukemia treatments in 2011.
“It takes people like Jean to lift our morale.”
Parsons, 26, has been at Anne’s House since it opened last summer; before that she was at Abri d’espoir, a Salvation Army residence and, before that, she was in hospital with mental-health issues. She’s back at school now, studying psychology at Dawson College.
“It takes people like Jean to lift our morale,” said Francine Richard, who sat down next in the chair and handed a package of dark auburn hair colouring to Scarabin for him to mix and apply. The women, most of whom receive welfare, cannot afford a hairdresser. “This is a big luxury for us,” she said.
Anne’s House, which has 30 individual apartments, is the latest addition to the Shaughnessy Village-based Nazareth Community; there is also Nazareth House, a residence for men struggling with mental illness and homelessness and the social isolation produced by both, and there are a dozen apartments nearby for men who are a bit more autonomous. A project of Batir son Quartier and Quebec social housing, Anne’s House also had financial support from several foundations; it is named for a woman who struggled with mental-health issues, the late sister of Nazareth board member Robin Burns.
Scarabin is one of 25 volunteers whose presence and participation help to make the Nazareth community the welcoming place it is. Together, they contribute 2oo to 300 hours of time each month. Volunteers include the high school students who started out doing community-service work and returned on their own, and those who bake cakes to celebrate residents’ birthdays.
They include dog trainer Marianne Peto, who comes by with Jackson, her golden retriever, twice a month to Nazareth House and twice a month to Anne’s House, and podiatrist Lenny Millereau, who looks after residents’ feet. They include Annie Delaney, who teaches yoga and mindfulness to residents of both houses, and plays guitar and sings for residents.
The volunteers “focus on the strengths of our residents, on who they are – not on their illnesses,” said Sheila Woodhouse, director of the Nazareth Community, and, in their way, “have changed the lives of our men and women.”
On a practical level, volunteers help alleviate the chronic financial stress that is de rigueur for a not-for-profit organization like Nazareth, “but most important is the impact on our residents. This is an incredible accomplishment.”
Chantal Bourassa, a 22-year-old McGill University dietetics student, worked in the kitchen at Nazareth House last summer on a federal grant, assisting cook Sandra McGee; then all through the school year she volunteered in the kitchen on Friday mornings. “The people here are very nice and appreciative of me helping, I really like cooking – and it was hard to go from being here full-time to not being here at all,” she said.
“I try to get to know their first names, and that means an awful lot to them – the idea that, when you go to talk to them after you haven’t seen them for a couple of weeks, they don’t have to introduce themselves.”
Cassandra Lynch, a shadow for adults with autism at Giant Steps, shadowed a client doing a work placement at Nazareth House last year and then returned last September as a volunteer: She is at Nazareth House one evening a week, playing music for residents.
“I wanted to volunteer – and I missed the guys at the place,” she said. “They’re such a great group.”
Eighty-two-year-old Bernie MacDonald, who retired in 2006 from a career in construction and cost engineering, has been volunteering since at Nazareth House – going about helping in his own quiet way. He contributes financially and occasionally underwrites the cost of special meals for residents, such as the pre-Passover lunch they enjoyed in April of bagels, cream cheese, chopped liver and potato latkes.
As well, MacDonald keeps an eye on the exterior of Nazareth House, going in early one morning each week to check that the parking lot out back is clear and garbage is removed. He pays for anti-slip rubber pads to be placed on the steps for winter and removed in spring. And he makes sure the fire escape is clear in winter and that the escape doors open properly; because the parking lot can be slippery, he provides salt.
“Some of the men spread the salt and two or three don’t mind keeping the stairs shovelled,” he said.
“I like to say hello and talk to the men,” he said. “I try to get to know their first names, and that means an awful lot to them – the idea that, when you go to talk to them after you haven’t seen them for a couple of weeks, they don’t have to introduce themselves.”
For MacDonald, volunteering at Nazareth House has been “a very humbling experience.” During his long career, “I never gave much thought to volunteering; I never gave much thought to the homeless. But in volunteering, I discovered a lot about them and I discovered a lot about myself.”
AT A GLANCE
Nazareth House holds its 18th annual Father John Walsh fundraising golf tournament on June 13. Father Walsh is president of the Nazareth community board. Go to nazarethcommunity.com to learn more.