A chance encounter set him on a new path. 20 years later, he's 'volunteer of the year'

·4 min read
Bill Bruton, left, receives his City of Whitehorse 'volunteer of the year' award from Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. The non-profit organization nominated Bruton for the award. (Submitted by City of Whitehorse - image credit)
Bill Bruton, left, receives his City of Whitehorse 'volunteer of the year' award from Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. The non-profit organization nominated Bruton for the award. (Submitted by City of Whitehorse - image credit)

It was a chance encounter with a stranger that set Bill Bruton on a path to change his life around and made it possible for him to give back to others.

In fact, he's given back so much, Bruton was recently named "volunteer of the year" by the City of Whitehorse. He was nominated by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition (YAPC) for the work he's done with them over the years.

Twenty years ago, Bruton was addicted to drugs and alcohol. One day, he asked a woman who was passing by to buy him a coffee.

"Complete stranger — and she did," he recalled.

The woman told Bruton that it was good that he was asking her to buy him a coffee on a day when she had enough money to do it.

It turned out the woman had been through what Bruton was going through.

As they drank their coffee, she told him to think about what he was doing, about his family, about everybody in his life, about how he was affecting them and how they were affecting him.

So he did.

"I did a bunch of soul searching," he said.

He thought back to some of the times he had almost overdosed and realized he could easily have died.

"You realize, oh, I might not be here, you know? And it's quite scary," he said.

"You're not reaching your potential as a human being and helping yourself, because when you help yourself, you find out you can help others."

Bruton, a First Nations elder, also said spirituality now plays a big role in his life and well-being. Every morning, he gets up and lights a fire in his wood stove.

"Symbolically, I'm writing my life new each day and I begin each day new because I light a new fire and it works quite well for me," he said. "[I thank] the creator for being here. I have had an opportunity to realize my life and do something about it and do something with it."

Submitted by Bill Bruton
Submitted by Bill Bruton

He said the woman, with whom he's still in touch, told him later that she bought him a coffee and talked to him that day because she saw something more in him.

"She was right," he said, "I was much better than what I was doing."

And today, 20 years after that chance encounter, Bruton said he's totally clean and happy, which is why he can give back to the community.

'Volunteers are the backbone'

Bruton said "it feels really good" to receive the award and hopes volunteers continue to get recognized for what they do.

"Volunteers are the backbone of the nonprofit societies in Whitehorse," he said.

He came to volunteer with the YAPC after graduating from its "Voices Influencing Change" program, which teaches advocacy and storytelling skills to people who have been homeless, living in poverty or socially excluded, so they can advocate for themselves, their community and their peers.

"Since then, he's become engaged in an awful lot of the work that the coalition does," said Kristina Craig, YAPC's executive director.

Craig said Bruton sits on the YAPC board as well as a community advisory board that determines how to use federal funding to address homelessness.

"He has stepped up to sit on funding subcommittees … [and] to provide input into consultations," Craig said.

Bruton said he started volunteering with the organization as it was starting to take over the Safe at Home program. He said the YAPC was looking to make changes with the program and he went to a couple of their meetings.

"I just kept going because it interested me and the more interested I got and the more I realized that … I was a homeless person at one time, and I can do something, you know, I can make a difference in someone's life," he said.

He's also volunteered with other non-profit associations over the years.

It started at the Skookum Jim Memorial Hall, which is now the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, where he helped with serving their first Christmas dinners in Whitehorse.

His advice for people who are looking to volunteer?

"Find things that interest you . If you volunteer to do things you like to do, it makes things much better. It makes things work quite well," he said.

"You're a happy person because you're doing something you want to do. And that's important when you're a volunteer."

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