With her best-selling memoir turned film, The Glass Castle author Jeannette Walls introduced audiences to a childhood beyond many people’s comprehension. The film, which hits theatres on August 11, depicts how Walls grew up hopping from small town to small town, turning one rundown house after another into a home with a dysfunctional yet deeply loyal family. During the good times, there would be family dinners and even Christmas presents; during the bad times, she recalls mixing butter with sugar just so she and her three siblings had something to eat.
Walls’s story is deeply personal, but unfortunately, not unique. In Canada, more than 1.3 million children—which translates to around one in every five kids—lives in poverty, according to a 2016 report. As a result, children and youth make up one third of food bank users and one out of every seven individuals in shelters.
Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth in Toronto is one such shelter, specifically aimed at helping Canadian youth. Alanna Scott, the development and campaign director for Eva’s Initiatives, says she is looking forward to seeing The Glass Castle and hopes that it will raise awareness for the challenges some youth endure.
“I would hope that people develop greater understanding and sensitivity to the depth of the challenges that some young people face which can lead to homelessness,” she says. “I also hope that people will respond to the emotion in the film by taking action and supporting youth in their communities in some way. Either through caring relationships and acts of kindness, by finding out more about the reasons for youth homelessness or through financial support for charities that assist youth experiencing homelessness.”
One such teen that came through Eva’s Initiatives is Sharon Peters—and her story is not so far from that of Walls. Peters asked we use a pseudonym to share her story.
As a kid, Peters remembers getting into the back seat of her family’s car, next to her younger brother, like she always did. As the car began to move, she asked her dad where they were going—and this time, his answer wasn’t what she expected. “To heaven,” he said, and soon the car was accelerating far too fast down an Ontario highway. But they didn’t go to heaven. Instead, the car eventually slowed, in fact, the speedometer dipped well below the speed limit and flow of surrounding traffic. Even though Peters was only six at the time, she still remembers that car ride. It would be more than a decade before her mother would tell her that day could have been her last—if her father had not had a last-minute change of heart.
Peters and her siblings were born to a mother and father who both have mental health challenges. (According to a 2013 report, people with mental or physical disabilities are nearly twice as likely to live below the poverty line.) Growing up, the young Torontonian’s childhood was much like that car ride—at times, driven by her parent and out of her control, with stretches she felt like she was going at a different pace from those around her.
Before the age of eight, Peters changed schools more times than she had fingers on her tiny hand. She had lived in a Greater Toronto Area suburb, moved to a small town, returned to Toronto, moved to another country and returned once again to Toronto.
“From three until seven was hectic,” recalls Peters.
From the outside though, her life didn’t seem so different from her classmates—it was just missing brand name clothing and the piles of toys. When she visited her cousins or friends, she remembers staring wide-eyed at their stacks of DVDs and indulging in The Princess Diaries or playing with Tonka trucks. But growing up without tons of toys didn’t take away from her ability to play as a child.
“Our imagination was the limit,” she says. “And we had wild imaginations.”
Unlike Walls, Peters never got to the point where she was going days without food. However, there was no frivolous spending on snacks either. When the family funds were low, she limited her Tim Horton’s order to one bagel with butter and exactly three Timbits.
“Things were so tight, every Timbit mattered,” she says.
During her teens, things became more stable. She moved into an apartment with her mother in Toronto and found a passion for science in her high school classes.
“I only found out what was different about my life now,” she says, explaining how in talking to other people about their childhoods she has realized hers strayed from the norm.
At 17, her living situation became more unstable because of her parents’ mental illness. Peters bounced from a family shelter to an emergency shelter and eventually to Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth. With the support provided, Peters was able to eventually get back on her feet and will be attending college in the fall—although, like most 20-somethings, she still isn’t quite sure what exactly she wants to do long-term.
Peters says that everything she’s gone through has drastically changed how she sees people—a message echoed by Walls in The Glass Castle.
“I made the mistake in the past of projecting my experiences onto other people, thinking people were like me, but I realized that that isn’t true,” says Peters. “Even when you think you know something about somebody, you could be wrong.”
With the upcoming film, she hopes that people see the complexities of a challenging childhood rather than merely feeling sorry for Walls, and the thousands of others like her.
“I feel like if people hear someone’s experience, the good and the bad and how it affected them, then they’d develop a more thorough understanding and see people as they really are,” she says. “If someone sees you solely as a charity case, they don’t really see you as a person anymore.”