[Chelsea is a past board member of OPIRG McMaster – we’re proud of her for speaking out!]
Putting a face to the girls of Charlton Hall
Hamilton Spectator, October 16, 2012
Chelsea Rothwell is a university student, a painter, a volunteer, a world traveller and an award-winning peace activist.
She’s also a former resident of Charlton Hall.
Over the past several months, the 24-year-old has been watching the showdown between the city and Charlton Hall, the home for teenagers struggling with mental health issues — most recently from India, where she’s co-ordinating an internship program for McMaster University.
Last month, just after Rothwell left for India, her mother accepted an award on her behalf at the Gandhi Peace Festival. It was presented by Mayor Bob Bratina, one of the 12 members of council who voted against allowing the women living at Charlton Hall to move into the Corktown neighbourhood.
On the eve of an Ontario Municipal Board hearing about the group home, Rothwell says she wants to put a human face on an inflammatory and divisive debate.
“I don’t feel like I’m too undesirable. I feel like I’m doing pretty well for myself,” she said. “I feel like if the Corktown neighbourhood could shake my hand and get to know me, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
At issue is the Lynwood Charlton Centre, the amalgamated children’s mental health facility that includes Charlton Hall. Lynwood Charlton staff want to relocate their overnight program for eight teenage girls from Charlton Avenue to a building that already houses some day programs on Augusta Street.
Councillors initially based their opposition to the move on the city’s controversial radial separation bylaw, which requires residential care facilities to be at least 300 metres apart.
However, several weeks ago, city staff announced that the building on Augusta should be classified as a “comprehensive institution” rather than a “residential care facility” because it would house both day and overnight programs. This classification denotes an even greater effect on the neighbourhood.
Throughout the debate, council has maintained that its opposition was about defending the bylaws — not about discriminating against the children being served by the Lynwood Charlton Centre.
Both sides will meet Tuesday for a pretrial hearing at the municipal board.
Several years ago, Rothwell — who grew up in what she calls a “rich suburb in Stoney Creek” — was one of the girls at Charlton Hall.
When she was 13, she started having behavioural issues that landed her in the St. Joseph’s Hospital emergency room. She spent some time in foster care before being told one day that she was being transferred to Charlton Hall.
“They handed me a garbage bag of my wet laundry and said, ‘You’re moving,’” she recalls.
At Charlton Hall, Rothwell’s social worker helped her reconnect with her family and gain acceptance into Westmount Secondary School.
“She changed my entire life. She was the first person I can recall who treated me as an equal,” Rothwell said. “She deeply cared for me, and we’re still in contact to this day.”
With the help of her social worker, at 16, Rothwell was able to return home to her parents. She graduated from high school, spent a year travelling with the Katimavik youth program and began her university studies.
Rothwell is planning to do her master’s degree at the University of Toronto and pursue a doctorate at Cornell. She’s hoping to work as an activist and academic pursuing social justice and food security.
“It single-handedly altered the course of my entire life,” she said of her time at Charlton Hall.
A grassroots campaign has sprung up in Hamilton to raise support for Charlton Hall’s young residents. Local media personality Laura Babcock, who is the president of a communications firm, has created T-shirts reading “S O S” — short for “Stomp Out Stigma” — that are being sold to show support for Charlton Hall residents. They are available from Babcock for $10 at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Hamilton HIStory + HERitage Gallery on James Street North from Thursday to Saturday.
Babcock created the shirts in collaboration with Lynwood Charlton after the idea was crowdsourced on social media.
“I didn’t like the message council was sending to the girls and the people with mental illness in our community,” Babcock said.
Rothwell also has a message for the girls at Charlton Hall.
“I think they need to be confident in their abilities and confident in the fact that they can be contributing members of society — and excel beyond what they can even imagine right now,” she said.
“It happened to me. People might say I’m an exception, but I don’t have to be.”
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