Sometimes an event is so significant that a person’s life divides into everything that happened before and everything that happened after that moment. For Peter Beliveau of Grand Forks, British Columbia, that moment was when his car rolled over when he was 21, just outside of town. Peter was lucky to walk away from the accident with his life, although he didn’t walk right away as he experienced damage to his spinal cord.
“I got in a car accident, broke my neck and stayed in the hospital, and when I could sort of walk again, I wanted to travel overseas.”
Peter had never adventured before his accident, at least not outside of western Canada. He grew up in Grand Forks, and his family didn’t have much money. Like many families, his parents split up, and he grew up with his mom in a single-parent household.
Once he was well enough to travel, he jumped on a plane to Australia, totally unaware that his life would change forever in making this one seemingly small decision.
When he was in Australia, he met his future wife, Pinkaew, who lived in Thailand, online. According to Pinkaew, the two talked online for almost a year before meeting in person.
“Too long,” Peter jokes, and then more seriously, “It feels like yesterday.”
Pinkaew, whose story with Peter reads like a very modern love story, is from the countryside in Thailand. Her family farms rice, cashew nuts and used to have mango trees but cut them out to plant palm trees for palm oil.
You’ll never guess what happened next. The two fell in love and spent the next 14 years in Thailand, raising two kids, Peyton, now 14, and Paicey, 12.
Turning Over a New Leaf
The family was ready for a change three years ago and moved back to British Columbia. Moving to Grand Forks in 2018 was pretty easy for Peter, but for Pinkaew, it was challenging. Although the couple had visited Grand Forks almost annually while they were in Thailand, living here was life-changing for Pinkaew.
“Coming here to live was totally different because I had to go back to school, and I had to look for work, and in Thailand, I didn’t do much. I was a stay-at-home mom and did some small things, not full-time work. There are a lot of things going on right now. A big change.”
In Thailand, Pinkaew didn’t use English outside of the home.
“When I moved here, I think I improved a lot. I think I gained a lot of vocabulary and understand more. I learn every day.”
Pinkaew has worked many different jobs since moving to Grand Forks, such as at Buy-Low Foods, Home Hardware and Bonty Lodge senior’s care home, all the while taking classes. She took an English as a Second Language class and then in-depth English classes before moving on to a course in childcare foundations that she hoped would set her up with a daycare job. But things didn’t go as planned.
“I got a job close to my house, but Covid hit, and I only got to work for ten days, and they closed the childcare.”
Out of work at the start of Covid, Pinkaew heard about a government program that financially supports students to complete their training. So Pinkaew applied for Selkirk College’s Health Care Assistant program. She gets paid a monthly stipend for training.
Peter still has health issues from his injury, especially when it comes to the right side of his body. He uses forearm canes, and when he goes on extended trips or errands, he uses a wheelchair. Peter sees that his disability limits the jobs he gets.
“In some ways, it is a major limit. Like if someone would see me now, age and disability come into play.”
For now, Peter is happy in his role of taking care of the kids at home.
“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad since we’ve been in Canada. I have a pension from my accident.”
While he loves taking care of the kids, he doesn’t get to use his brain as much as he would like and jokes he’s “turning into Jello.” He hopes to one day find work that suits his interests and mobility needs.
Between a House and a Hard Place
When the family moved to Canada, Peter explains the challenging situation they faced. Because he didn’t keep loans or bank accounts here while he was in Thailand, buying a house was impossible.
“We had a little bit of money saved up, and when we came here, we thought that we could get a house. But we approached the bank on a couple of houses, and they said no because we had zero credit,” Peter says.
One bank told him that he was “just like a teenage kid who just came out of his parent’s basement.” The couple was told to spend three or four years building up their credit before reapplying for a mortgage.
“We piled in with my dad, and I think we stayed there like close to one year. Probably would have been longer if Habitat for Humanity didn’t show up.”
And the rental situation is very limited in Grand Forks, says Peter. Finding a rental big enough to hold their whole family was unlikely and staying in Peter’s dad’s basement was not a long-term option. Peter and Pinkaew considered moving outside of the area to find housing.
“In Grand Forks, I don’t know where we’d be. To find a three bedroom house for us, I don’t think we could afford it,” he says.
Housing affordability is a regional issue
The challenges that the Beliveau family faced are all too common in our area. So just how tough is it to find secure and safe housing in our rural communities?
Janet Morton, Trail resident and affordable housing devotee, explains that while there are considerable challenges with housing affordability in the Kootenays, we need to look to bigger trends. Before she retired, Jan was the executive director of the Community Skills Centre in Trail. She knows how hard it can be to find housing in our rural communities like Grand Forks.
“Quite a number of households in our region are considered, in economic terms, to be in housing need. The definition is that when a household is spending more than 30% of gross income on housing, they are going into housing need. Those who are up to 50% are considered to be more desperately in need.”
On top of this, many people are in a house ownership situation but are quite stretched with mortgages. Others still are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness and could benefit from supportive housing.
Many Hands Build a House
Right around the time when Peter and Pinkaew were losing hope of finding housing in Grand Forks, Peter’s sister heard about the Habitat for Humanity program and suggested they apply. And so Peter did.
Habitat for Humanity is an international, nonprofit organization that brings people together to build homes for families in need. Homes built by volunteer labour give selected low-income families a chance at ownership.
Pinkaew says, “We came here in the right place, right time, I think. When we got accepted for this house, we were still deciding where we wanted to live in Canada. We were thinking about our situation and then decided to apply for the program.”
When Peter and Pinkaew found out they were accepted into the Habitat for Humanity program, they knew they were going to have to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to help build the house. Peter explains how the program worked for their family.
“The house is yours, but you have to put in a set amount of hours. When they did ours, it was 500 hours of physical labour. We blasted by that. We were around 700. We wanted in fast, so we did all the insulation, drywall and painted it. We just wanted in the house! As much as we could do as a family, we just attacked it.”
The kids even helped, especially the oldest, Peyton. Pinkaew remembers the kids helping with painting and carrying drywall.
The great thing about Habitat for Humanity is that they build homes specific to the needs of the family. So, the Beliveau family received a three-bedroom house suited to their needs.
“The house is all accessible. Like big doors, the layout is made for a person if they had to go to a wheelchair. It was pretty neat.”
Peter explains how Habitat for Humanity relieved the financial burden of the family.
“Coming through Habitat helps your financials. You can have the house but not the heavy burden of a mortgage payment. It gives you the ability to build credit and money. We are building a future.”
As someone who has worked developing and implementing affordable housing projects on a volunteer basis since 2005, Jan Morton sees that having stable housing changes lives.
“I certainly know how extremely heartwarming it is when you have the opportunity to hand over the keys and what a difference it makes in people’s lives because people can get on with other things they need to do and pursue other interests and ambitions and support their families more effectively. It makes one heck of a difference.”
Many Hearts Build a Home
The Beliveau family moved into their brand new house two years ago and haven’t looked back. The family is so grateful.
Pinkaew says, “We would not have been able to get into a new house like this without the support of the Habitat for Humanity program.”
It’s a big week for the Beliveau family. Their kids are growing up so fast. Peter says, “My son just started his first job yesterday. He’s going to work at one of the Chinese food restaurants.”
With stable housing, Pinkaew is putting her energy into completing her Health Care Assistant certificate at Selkirk College. She will finish at the end of this year. She is looking forward to the day that she has a steady, solid job. She is also working hard on her backyard garden, one of the benefits of homeownership.
Pinkaew says, “The more days we spend days in this house I get used to it and I fall in love more and more with my house and my yard. The year we moved in I planted some flowers and last year it all bloomed and it looks nice and beautiful, so when all my gardens come together I probably don’t want to move out of this house.”
Jan Morton explains how housing makes a difference in people’s lives.
“A community is made up of all income levels. And particularly for those people at the lower end of the spectrum, under the principles of housing first, if people have the security of a home and a door they can lock, then they can get on with other opportunities in their lives. Housing people builds community.”
Peter and Pinkaew are moving on to other dreams. Some of them are big, like dreaming for their children’s happy futures. Others are small, like one day soon they hope to build a fireplace in the backyard that they can enjoy as a family. This is what having a home looks like.