Jessica Nolet is no longer ashamed to say she’s on social assistance.
That’s because for the first time in 10 years, the single mother of four sees a path forward, the possibility of a better life for her and her children.
How things can change in a few years.
She has overcome crippling anxiety, cut ties with an abusive partner and she’s returning to school in the fall, fulfilling a long-term goal.
In September, Nolet will begin the first semester of a two-year Social Services program at Nova Scotia Community College.
She wants to continue her path of advocacy, a journey she began with the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre seven months ago. She has been a regular volunteer at this largely community-run, not-for-profit organization that offers a dignified place for people to come together to embrace wholesome food.
She is inspired by the men, women and children who arrive without fail for the regular cooking classes and community meals prepared by the centre’s nutritionist and chef. The community garden that borders the centre’s parking lot is filled with vegetables that have been planted and cultivated by those same people. The centre’s weekend market has proven to be a hit, especially the bargain-priced produce.
She is motivated and moving forward.
“I’m not that embarrassed anymore because I’m not someone who’s abusing the system," Nolet said in a recent interview. “I’m trying to take what I can get to better myself and my family, and that’s not abusing it.
“I’m so passionate about what I’ve been doing. It’s inspired me to do what I want to do. I wanted to move forward, I wanted to go back to school, but this experience gave me the push to do it. I came here because I just really wanted to help people and make a difference.”
Nolet’s downward spiral can be traced back a little over a decade ago when she became a victim of a violent robbery. She was managing a Halifax gas station at the time and during one of her evening shifts was confronted by an armed man demanding cash. Traumatized by the event, she took time off work. Her employment insurance ran out and eventually she ended up on social assistance. She never went back to work. Through it all, she believed she would get better, that her and her partner’s circumstances would change. Nolet eventually found the therapy she needed. Things started to improve little by little.
A few years back, she decided to pay Dartmouth Family Centre a visit — a decision that would change the course of her life. Overwhelmed, she found a welcoming support group at the small not-for-profit organization. Staff and clients alike were only too happy to offer her a hand when she needed it.
A staff member there by the name of Tammy Shields noticed the progress Nolet was making and the interest she took in clients. Shortly after Shields took a job at the food centre, she encouraged Nolet to apply for a new peer advocate position there.
Nolet did and she got the job.
“It’s been a dream," said Nolet. "We offer supportive counselling for people looking for other drop-in centres, other social services groups, like clothing banks and food banks. We see a lot of mental health issues; people come and just want to talk. We’re just an ear to listen.”
Beyond this, Nolet has found an organization that embodies her own values.
“It’s all about community, providing an opportunity for us all to come together and kind of get to know your neighbours. Food brings people together. People are learning how to grow their own food.
"We have a huge garden open to the community. They’re learning about what they’re growing, what they’re eating. There’s cooking classes for adults and children, and we come together to learn what we’re cooking, and we sit down and eat as a group. It’s such an amazing concept.”
Raising four children on social assistance isn’t easy. The latter part of the month is always the toughest. But she’s always provided for her children. Many a night, she’s gone to bed hungry.
She’s determined to provide a better life for her children.
"My goal is to work at a non-profit organization, like the Bryony House or Alice Housing, helping other women and families. Through my own experiences, I believe I have a lot to offer. I’m hard-working, empathetic and non-judgmental, and I think the world needs more of that."
Kathleen Chan, a dietetic intern at the centre, has witnessed Nolet’s transformation. Chan says Nolet has become an inspiration to many at the centre.
“She’s so passionate and super involved, and she’s here almost every day of the week," said Chan. “I feel like the centre has changed her life. She’s a community leader and I don’t think she would have identified herself as that before she arrived here.”