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Guelph woman a living embodiment of 'What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger'

In this Helpers feature we talk with Denese Renaud whose resolve to help others through Project Awareness/Solutions Now has been strengthened by her own experiences with cancer and grief.

In the fall of 2018 Denese Renaud had reason to be hopeful. The retired, single mother of three daughters and three grandchildren had just fulfilled a lifelong goal of owning her own home.

She had applied to Habitat for Humanity for support in 2015 and was approved to move into her new one-bedroom house at Cityview Village in May of 2019.

“You have to earn sweat equity to get in there so, I did my 250 hours of sweat equity at the ReStore and I still participate with them because I believe in what they do,” said Renaud.

Guelph was in the midst of a municipal election in October 2018 and the issue of homelessness and the opioid crisis was on many voters’ minds including Renaud’s.

“We are losing a whole generation of people and we need to do something about that,” said Renaud. “I am trying to figure it out and it boggles my mind.”

She was at one of the mayors’ debates when she met Donny Hay, a local activist who was petitioning to have a medical detox centre established in Guelph.

“He started telling me about his cause and I thought wow, this man has a brilliant idea,” she said. “I was trying to work the connections I know and the people I know to see if we could go with this because it is brilliant.”

Two months later, however, she was forced to put her plans to help others on hold and fight a battle for her own life.

“I got the diagnosis on the 20th of December – Merry Christmas,” she said. “I had a triple negative breast cancer, which in earlier years did not have a great survival rate. It is a very aggressive form of cancer.”

Renaud had separated from her husband in 2001 but she still had the support of her daughters Danielle, 30 and Nichole, 32, and Chrysta, 43, from a previous marriage.

“I was a single mom for a long time so Chrysta and I were buddies for a while,” she said. “When you raise a kid as a single mom you have a different relationship than the other two who were raised with their dad.”

Chrysta too, was a single mother, who moved to Toronto with her daughter Lexxus 17 years ago.

“She was an office girl,” said Renaud. “She lived here until Lexxus was five and then she got a really good job opportunity in Toronto and she left.”

Renaud was determined to beat the cancer swiftly and decisively and rang in the New Year prepping for surgery.

“I had surgery Jan 2 and I went through the chemo treatments,” she said. “Radiation finished in August. Hence the hair is coming back. I am a breast cancer survivor now. I’m not a warrior anymore. I’ve done that.”

Cancer free and settled into her new Cityview home, Renaud was ready to refocus on helping with Hay’s efforts and volunteered with the campaign of Guelph Conservative candidate Ashish Sachan during the recent federal election.

She was behind an effort called Project Awareness that intended to raise the issue during a Conservative Party rally Sep 20 where Hay and other addiction advocates were invited to speak.

“Ottawa pulled the plug on us three hours before the event was set to start,” she said. “I was so mad. I don’t know why they did that, but I will never forgive them for that.”

Renaud’s resolve was only strengthened by the experience.

“We said, you know what, this is a strong enough cause that we are going to do it without any political association,” she said. “If you are going to tie our hands, we don’t want you right now. We will form this coalition and then go beg for money.”

The cause would take on even deeper significance for Renaud less than three weeks later when her daughter Chrysta was found dead in her Toronto apartment from a drug overdose.

“It was the icing on the cake, I have to admit,” she said. “I used to say, of all the things I thought I would get, cancer wasn’t one of them. You are always empathetic to people and say I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child and then, surprise. I am going to stop saying those things.”

Chrysta had a good job working in a doctors’ office in The Beaches and showed no signs of drug abuse.

“Her death is still under criminal investigation,” said Renaud. “It was out of the blue. It’s not like she was sick. We never got a chance to say goodbye. Not even her roommate knew what lurked behind her bedroom door. She wasn’t found for three days.”

Renaud believes her daughter’s pride and fear of stigma may be why she never asked for help.

“The embarrassment would have been great because she wouldn’t want me to know,” she said. “She knew about her mom being sick. She knew the risk she was taking. She knew and yet it overcame her. Whatever it was, the pain whether physical or mental she couldn’t deal with it.”

Renaud is part of a diverse group of people who have joined forces to raise awareness and find solutions to the addictions and homelessness crisis in Guelph. The aptly named Project Awareness/Solutions Now is a coalition of mental health professionals, poverty and addictions advocates, police, pharmacists, and concerned citizens who have adopted initiatives including Hay’s original goal to establish a medical detox centre in Guelph.

“It has opened my eyes,” said Renaud. “It makes me look at addiction differently. Your typical addict may not necessarily be the homeless guy on the street corner. It has no discrimination.”

She is determined to ensure that Chrysta did not die in vain and to do everything she can to prevent other parents and loved ones from going through the same thing.

“We are the suck it up generation,” she said. “My Nanna used to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger', but I am like Holy Christ God, give me a break.  I’ve had a hell of a year.”