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'It was chaotic': Clarenville Youth Outreach Worker using his own life experience to help others

Gerry Mercer is a youth outreach worker for Eastern Health in Clarenville. — JONATHAN PARSONS/THE PACKET
Gerry Mercer is a youth outreach worker for Eastern Health in Clarenville. — JONATHAN PARSONS/THE PACKET

He was 15 years old and afraid he was going to die.

Gerry Mercer remembers his mother was holding a dagger, screaming at him.

“I brought you into this world and I’m taking you out.”

She had broken down his locked bedroom door.

The only thing separating them was the bed — he was on one side and she was on the other.

The boy escaped by climbing out his bedroom window.

Mercer said his mother used drugs and even sold drugs from their home.

“It really created a chaotic environment for me to live in,” he said. “There was always fighting in the house, people dropping in on a day-to-day basis looking for a gram … it was never a stable environment for someone to grow up in.”

His childhood was spent being bounced between households of family members. He was removed from his home several times by Children, Seniors and Social Development (CSSD).

Mercer still has flashbacks from being locked alone in his room with nothing to eat for days on end — just a mattress and a pot in which to urinate.

Now, at age 27, the Paradise native is using his experiences and the lessons gleaned from dealing with his personal trauma to help others. Part of his healing process was taking on the role of a youth outreach worker for Eastern Health in Clarenville.

This survivor is giving back. He said he’s come to realize his purpose in life is to help others the way he was helped as a young man.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for the peer support that people have given me,” Mercer said.

Mercer recently moved to Clarenville with his family. His work entails providing one-on-one peer support for young people in crisis.

“For a while, I really questioned my ability to be a helping professional because of the trauma and the things I went through as a kid,” Mercer said.

But he’s come to a realization.

“The experiences that I faced and the situations that I was in helped me frame what youths need in the moment. I’m able to, not better serve or help, but I’m able to better identify and empathize with the youth in similar situations.

“I sort of know what the coat feels like when they’re wearing it.”

A long journey

Growing up in Paradise, it was common for Mercer’s mother to kick him out of the house for the weekend so that she could go on a binge. He was between seven and nine years old at the time.

He recalls packing his belongings and moving in with his grandmother, only for his mother to apologize and take him back in — saying everything would be different.

“The next weekend, it would be the same again.”

During this period of being farmed out to stay with various family members, Mercer said he was sexually abused by an uncle.

“I’ve been hurt on both sides of the family.”

Mercer also had to deal with being labelled as no good because of his mother.

“That was a hard stigma to break because parents wouldn’t want their kids to play with me or come to the house because they knew Mom was a drug dealer,” he remembered.

A tipping point came when Mercer was 15. He was on the way to get ice cream with his grandmother when his mother called, wanting to see him. He was reluctant but agreed to meet her.

“She was combative, she was screaming,” Mercer said.

In the confrontation with his mother, he was forced to escape as she tried to attack him with a knife. It was the final straw and led to his official placement in the care of his grandmother.

Then another set of problems began.

He and his grandmother were on the receiving end of threats, thefts, and were victimized through manipulation and confrontations.

He considered suicide.

“I was lucky enough that there were people in my life who responded right away,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today.”

He received care from the Children’s Psychiatric Unit at the Janeway Children’s Hospital and started to improve.

He learned suicide was “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

But even with a more stable family environment with more friends, the effects of his upbringing were starting to show.

He pushed back at those close to him, began drinking, fighting and getting into a lot of trouble at school.

“I was basically becoming the product of what everyone was saying I was going to be.”

Around the age of 16 Mercer became an emancipated youth and lived in a group home.

It was at this time he moved in with a couple who worked at the group home.

“Instead of going out to live on my own, they offered to take me on, not as a foster kid, but to be a support to me.

“It was then I felt what a real family was — coming home after school and sitting down for supper and talking about your day. (It) really felt like a family and that’s what I craved the most.”

Mercer went on to live on his own at 17 and has done so ever since. He also became involved with the Salvation Army through his grandmother, spending many weekends as a youth volunteering and talking to people who needed some support.

“That’s where I found family.”

It’s also where he believes his purpose was realized.

“I could’ve continued to say, ‘Poor me,’ … and continue to exhibit the same behaviours and follow the same path as my mother, but I came to an understanding that everything I went through happened for a reason. And it happened because I’m now meant to serve and help other people.”

Moving forward

Mercer cites motivational speaker Josh Shipp who says every kid needs one caring adult to become a success story.

Mercer says he was fortunate to have people such as his grandmother, teachers, people within the church and a foster family who were there for him.

And, as someone simply to lean on or provide an ear to listen, Mercer is looking to provide that support in Clarenville.

“If a parent or a young person thinks that it would benefit them from meeting with me, having me as a support there, they can call me, email, text me — there’s no formal way of getting my help,” Mercer explained.

The talking can range from self-esteem or anxiety to facilitating group activities. He provides crisis intervention support and is a suicide intervention trainer.

His role is to build a relationship, provide support and, if needed, bridge the connection to further clinical support, such as counselling.

He said he’s looking forward to becoming more involved in the community itself.

“I’m a big believer in, ‘It takes a community to raise a kid.’ So definitely creating relationships and partnerships with outside community agencies will work better to create a wraparound service for youth.”

He’s thankful to be a part of the mental health and addictions team in Clarenville.

“I’m excited to start building those relationships with the youth and families.”

“I’m there to talk if they need me.”

Twitter: @jejparsons

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