Many people hope to leave a legacy when they retire, but few can say that they have truly left a legacy of hope. Now retired after 29 years of faithful service as president of Union Gospel Mission, Maurice McElrea has indeed done just that. Maurice is recognized throughout the Metro Vancouver area as a man who has made a tremendous difference in Canada’s poorest postal code, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In his years with UGM, he has played an integral role in providing hope for some of the community’s most desperate men, women, youth and children.
Born in County Derry, (Maurice’s mother liked having her children in a facility there) It was never his real home. Within days Maurice was back in County Tyrone where he spent his younger days at home.
Maurice McElrea came to Canada at the age of 18 to seek out opportunities he’d heard existed in the west. “I believed that there was gold in Canada’s streets,” he recalls, “but I was soon to find that I was in the streets and there was very little gold.” Indeed, Maurice’s first contact with Union Gospel Mission was as a young, hungry new immigrant walking through its doors for a bowl of soup.
Having experienced first-hand the absolute desperation of being lonely and hungry, Maurice understood that a single act of kindness could be the first step in helping a man regain his dignity and go on to change his life. Maurice likes to joke that he went from “soup to superintendent,” for in 1980, 20 years after he first came to the Mission and after many years working in the plywood and paper industries, he took over the leadership of UGM. This philosophy that hope begins with a meal helped shaped Maurice’s vision for the organization as it expanded exponentially to meet the growing need for its services. He realized that though men & women might first come through the Mission’s doors for a meal, at this time they might also receive information about alcohol & drug recovery programs, affordable housing, and education programs; this could be the first step to changing their lives.
At the start of Maurice’s tenure, the organization reached out to the community by serving 15,000 meals a year and providing 13 beds for the homeless. At that time, UGM was run by a three-member staff who worked out of a condemned building. Under Maurice’s leadership, UGM has expanded to 12 locations in Metro Vancouver and the city of Mission, serving over 256,000 meals a year, and offering alcohol and drug recovery programs, youth programs, education programs, expanded women’s and children’s services, and subsidized housing in partnership with the government.
And while Maurice’s hand in the growth of UGM is impressive, the numbers simply can’t tell the entire story of the impact of Maurice’s work—this can only be understood by hearing some of the stories of the people whose lives have been profoundly changed.
One of the programs that Maurice holds close to his heart is UGM’s camp program. Each year, the Mission helps send over 650 children in need to a week of quality summer camp. For many children living in poverty or difficult family situations, this week is the highlight of their year. More importantly, at camp they can receive new direction for their lives and make positive memories that stay with them no matter what the future holds.
Maurice’s work has always been focused on affecting community change by affecting individual lives. There was a group of children living in a housing complex near UGM’s Headquarters on the Downtown Eastside. For whatever reason there was a real feeling of tension amongst the families living there; the children wouldn’t play with their neighbours and the parents couldn’t rely on one another as neighbours often can. The children were attending UGM’s children’s programs and ended up being sponsored to attend a week of summer camp. Maurice recalls with a smile that this group of children went on to have an amazing week at camp together. During this time, they grew to enjoy one another’s company and created wonderful memories as a group. When they returned home to the housing complex, the camaraderie spread to their families and soon the building felt more like an inclusive community: families looking out for one another and enjoying their community together.
Over Maurice’s years at UGM, hundreds of men and women have graduated from the Alcohol & Drug Recovery Program. Many of these men and women have gone on to make use of UGM’s continuum of care and services. They obtain clean, safe, affordable, sober housing at Union Gospel Housing’s Maurice McElrea Place; work towards their General Educational Development (GED); gain employment skills; and start living productive lives. Many even come on to work at UGM, giving back to the organization that gave them hope and giving back to the community from which they came. Maurice has helped build an organization whose services and programs offer real hope and empower people to re-build their lives.
With a heart for the people he serves, Maurice was always interested in working with other community organizations, and all branches of government in working toward long-term solutions to poverty, homelessness and addiction. He has been a voice for making known the needs of the homeless and those who otherwise might be invisible and for breaking through the red-tape of bureaucracy that would politicize the issue of poverty. For Maurice, poverty isn’t a political issue; it’s a systemic problem and a human issue. Believing strongly that charities should not be mandated to have government directly involved in the running of their organizations; Maurice was able to successfully challenge proposed legislation that would have seriously hampered the ability of charities to offer services without government interference. He was instrumental in bringing about change in that legislation. Maurice helped ensure that charities could continue to offer the kinds of services that government simply couldn’t. UGM is a donor-funded organization that does not receive government monies to provide any of its services with the exception of the housing component for the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Program. At UGM alone, over 256,000 meals were served to hungry men, women, youth and children last year, and over 28,000 nights of safe shelter were provided. Government now recognizes these services as much needed and indeed valuable, and this is largely thanks to Maurice’s willingness to stand up for those who may not be given the platform to do so themselves.
Thanks to Lorene Vernon of Union Gospel Mission Vancouver for assistance.