Pembroke – For those who have been helped by Blanche Mirault, or just had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with her, they describe her as caring, sympathetic, a fighter who never backs down from her own struggles and a community activist who will move heaven and earth if it means helping someone who has hit rock bottom.
Whether it is a longtime friend or complete stranger, the Pembroke resident is certainly one of a kind, and as the driving force behind the Got You In Mind thrift store in downtown Pembroke, she has helped hundreds of people over the last few years and has never asked for anything in return.
The stark reality of COVID for Ms. Mirault is she had no income for several months, the rent still had to be paid and other bills were piling up for the store that relies on sales of items that have little or no markup.
It is quite common for a homeless person to show up and Ms. Mirault and her small army of volunteers will often give that person basic necessities and clothing at no charge in order to get them through another day and face the next challenge with a renewed sense of independence and dignity.
That commitment to selfless acts of generosity has come face-to-face with the cold reality that far less money has come into the store to meet the costs of keeping the store open. It is for that reason a GoFundMe account has been set up to help pay the bills and help those most in need of a helping hand and a little compassion.
“My doors may have been shut for a long time, but I never took a day off because mental illness and addiction never take a day off and I just couldn’t sit around knowing somebody needed help,” she told the Leader. “The rent for one year is $13,560 and we hope we can raise that much so we can keep helping people.”
The forced closure of her store had the ripple effect of displacing several individuals who are often shunned by most of society, but welcomed with open arms by Ms. Mirault and others who considered the store a safe place.
“This is like a home for people who don’t have a home or a family,” she said. “This is a place where they are safe and sometimes it just takes a hug and a smile to take a person out of their dark place and allow them to see the sunlight.”
She knows firsthand the devastating toll mental illness can take. She has battled mental illness most of her adult life and has spent time in the deep darkness of depression.
She first opened Got You In Mind in 2013 and it immediately became known not only to those who battled mental illness and the stigma of being on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, but her tireless efforts and ability to connect with those struggling was noticed by professionals in several social services agencies.
Although the store was closed during the pandemic, it didn’t mean she was sitting idle.
“I was getting calls from the hospital or Ontario Works about somebody needing help and I made sure they came in the store and were helped,” she said. “Whether it was giving them toiletries or clothing or a snack, we helped them when they had nowhere else to turn. I was in the store helping about 10 people a week during the shutdown.”
In 2017, a fire destroyed the Pembroke Street location and her entire inventory was lost. That tragedy overwhelmed her and she was admitted to hospital to once again battle her own darkness. It took a few weeks, but she returned to the charred remains of her store and started over.
“I truly believe that we have to turn a negative into a positive and it would have been so easy for me to just give up and let mental illness win, but I didn’t,” she said. “There are too many people worse off than me and I know I was put on this earth to help them.”
Got You in Mind achieved not-for-profit status in 2018 with the support of a newly-created board of directors and she reopened the store at is current Hincks Street location. The thrift store operates on donations without assistance from provincial or federal grants. Proceeds collected from sales are used by Ms. Mirault to create small wellness kits containing vital necessities like toiletries.
Brian Abdallah, a member of Pembroke City Council and a strong supporter of Got You In Mind, is helping the organization attain charitable status.
“We live in a wonderful, caring and giving community and are very fortunate to have citizens of such character as Blanche Mirault and the dedicated volunteers at the Got You in Mind thrift store,” he said. “The next step is to apply for charitable status to reflect its true social enterprise nature and remain as a sustainable operation.”
She Saved My Life
Teresa Hack first met Ms. Mirault nine years ago and that first meeting had a profound impact on her.
“She helped me when I was in a really bad place back in 2012,” she said. “The things Blanche did for me, no stranger would ever do.
“I’ve known her since then and the things she did for me and I think if it wasn’t for her, I might not be here today. In a way, Blanche saved my life.”
Ms. Hack said a woman came in the store recently and broke down crying that she was homeless and her life was not worth living and she was giving up.
“Then Blanche saw this woman in tears and talked to her,” Ms. Hack said. “I had no idea what Blanche was saying to her. All I could see was both ladies were crying and then Blanche stood up and asked everyone in the store if this beautiful lady was loved. Well a lot of us started crying and volunteers and customers alike told her she was loved and that she was needed on this earth.
“The woman cried so much because she knew she was not alone anymore. Blanche gave her pizza and a drink right away, then off to the phone she went. In just a few minutes Blanche got this lady help with the right people and got her a warm place to stay that night. Blanche may not have wings, but she is the closest thing to an angel you will ever see.”
Ms. Hack said that is why she set up the GoFundMe page. The episode with the homeless woman is just one of many little miracles Ms. Mirault performs every day and there are many days her friend will work all day and leave the store with only a few dollars, if any, to take care of herself.
She is hopeful the recent Community Builders Award presented by the United Way of Eastern Ontario will help raise the profile of Ms. Mirault and increase donations to the GoFundMe account.
When Ms. Mirault was asked about the significance of the award, she said it was humbling, but she was too busy trying to find clothing for a local family to stop and ponder about her recent tribute.
She will be the first to admit it is the 10 volunteers who inspire her and she is quick to credit them with spreading love and positive thoughts to every person who enters the store.
“I always tell people there is no magic formula to get through life and there will be days when you think you just can’t keep going on,” Ms. Mirault said. “I know that feeling. I tell people to always have faith and even when you think you can’t do it, just don’t give up. Turn every negative into a positive and never lose faith in yourself.”
Got You In Mind is located at 216 Hincks Street in Pembroke. To support the GoFundMe campaign visit https://bit.ly/2O17iGJ.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader