Building Families Out of Strangers: Karen Sherbut On Overcoming Homelessness and Creating a Safe Haven for At-Risk Girls
Karen Sherbut was sixteen when she ran away from home. It was January, 1975, and the day had begun somewhat typically: she’d had a fight with her stepmom, one that would need to be “discussed” with her father when he arrived home. The problem? “Discussion” was often a physical event. Violent. “He would come home in his drunken stupors and I could tell from the way the door closed whether it was going to be a good night or a bad night,” she remembers. “I had my hiding spots, but he always found me.”
Later that afternoon, pencil poised over a math test, Karen began to shake. She couldn’t take it anymore. “I realized I needed to do something if I wanted to start living instead of just existing,” she says.
And so when she came home from school that evening to find her father standing in the doorway waiting for her, she turned and ran. “I knew that every step I took away from that house was one step closer to safety,” she recalls. “It sounds bizarre, but it’s a common feeling for so many homeless and runaway kids—that the streets and its unknowns are safer than what you’re running from.”
Also propelling Karen to run was the knowledge that no one else was going to fight for her safety. Although neighbours had previously made calls the police due to violence they’d overheard, no action had ever been taken against the abuse in her home. “Times were different back then,” she says. “It was taboo to talk about domestic violence and child abuse. Everyone turned a blind eye because, if they had to look at it, they had to do something about it.”
“I realized I needed to do something if I wanted to start living instead of just existing.”
Doing something about it was exactly what Karen did on the day she ran. It’s also what she continues to do now as the Co-founder and President of the Safe Haven Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to keep homeless and at-risk girls safe, in a stable home, and at school. One way they accomplish this mission is through housing at Haven’s Way™, the core project of the Safe Haven Foundation. A long term home that provides live-in support “parents” in the hopes of re-creating a loving home environment, Haven’s Way™ is about building a family out of strangers for Calgary girls aged 14-24. “It’s everything you can think of in terms of a healthy, functioning family. There are family dinners, homework, chores, recreational outings—all with a focus on goal setting and healing. We’re still pretty unique in the world in terms of what we do,” she says.
That uniqueness hasn’t gone unnoticed: in 2002, Karen was awarded Global News’ Calgary Woman of Vision Award for her work with Safe Haven; and in 2019, Canadian Business Chicks nominated her for the Women of Inspiration Award. Yet she stresses that, at Haven’s Way™, the girls have the toughest job of all. “Once they’re here, they have to work hard to rise above their hardships. They have to build their own dreams instead of the nightmares they have lived.”
Karen knowns a thing or two about nightmares. “But I don’t ever want to play the role of a victim,” she says. “I’ve had some bad things happen, but show me anyone who hasn’t had a tough life. I wouldn’t wish my childhood upon anyone, but I wouldn’t change it either. It has made me who I am. And I like me.”
It’s a sticky summer day and I am video-chatting with Karen from what can only be called a dungeonesque setting. Although Karen’s side of the conversation began in a sun-filled, brick-accented, third-floor home office (a setting much more symbolic of the success she has cultivated over the years) the speed of the basement wifi is the best in the house, and so Karen has relocated to a seat beneath a labyrinth of vents and pipes downstairs. The fact that she has sacrificed good lighting for clarity of conversation strikes me as savvy, unpretentious. As she speaks, a trio of labradoodles vie for her attention. This is a make-it-work woman.
Resourcefulness may just be what kept Karen alive as a sixteen-year-old with no home. After spending the first night alone in a bus shelter in downtown Winnipeg, she awoke to the chilly January daylight with an inner resolve to transcend her circumstances. “I knew by morning that I needed to figure things out on my own. I also knew I was going to be okay.”
When I ask where that personal clarity came from, she shakes her head. “I wish I could pinpoint it. It was a strength I had within that I never knew I had until that night.” Voice cracking, she stops to take a breath. “I had grown up being invisible. To be very small was the safest way to be. You walk on eggshells constantly, worrying about what the next mistake is going to bring. I knew that morning that I didn’t ever have to do that again.”
She was right. After that night, Karen neither returned home nor to the streets, opting to crash on the couches of supportive friends and family members—mainly her older brother, Mike, and a still-close friend named Linda. A particular dinner at Linda’s helped firm-up her resolve to stay away from her abusive childhood home: “There were seven of us, five kids and two adults, sitting around the table and laughing and talking and joking and loving,” she says, adding that, until that moment, love had been a pretty fraught concept, intrinsically linked with violence. “That dinner was one of the moments where I realized there was something out there other than what I knew.”
“I wouldn’t wish my childhood upon anyone, but I wouldn’t change it either. It has made me who I am. And I like me.”
Still, even with these new, positive examples of love, Karen was still part of a highly marginalized sect: the “invisible youth,” as in, young people who couch surf as a means to stay off the streets, who are homeless but do not typically present as destitute. Having a roof over your head does not necessarily mean solace, or even safety. “With couch surfers—the invisible youth—we don’t want to overstay our welcome. We don’t want to be an intrusion,” Karen says. And so come daily, nagging thoughts: where will I sleep tonight? Will I end up on the streets again? Is my situation my fault?
Karen was able to keep these thoughts at bay through a combination of perseverance, tenacity, and self-belief. “I had this uncanny faith inside me that I knew I was better than what I had been told I was.”
She also never allowed herself to coast. While in highschool, Karen held down multiple jobs in fast food and retail before transitioning to full-time government work—which she accepted with permission from her principal, since it required leaving school two weeks early. “I could only type twenty words a minute in a job demanded eighty,” she says. “But my bosses saw something in me.”
That something was potential, promise. Also: heart. Karen earned four promotions in just six years while working for the government, often feeling in-over-her-head but undeterred. “I say I graduated with a Master’s from the School of Hard Knocks because that’s how I learned,” she laughs. “There’s that saying: life is our toughest teacher because she gives you the test before the lesson.”
Ever-ambitious, Karen left the security of government work to explore the modelling industry, both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. Her interest in modelling lead her to discover a talent for marketing and retail, and she eventually became the National Director of Marketing for a shopping centre development company in 1988.
Although Karen has largely stepped back from her career in marketing, she still provides advisory support within her husband’s company, Britgary Properties, where she is the Vice President. But a more apt title for Karen might be Full-Time Philanthropist, as she is constantly working to improve the Safe Haven Foundation and its initiatives, which, in addition to the Haven’s Way™ home, include a scholarship fund program, an alumni program for former residents, and a therapeutic recreation fund program. Karen’s work with Safe Haven has no personal monetary benefit—her role is completely volunteer—but when you’re talking about a charity that has provided a home to over eighty girls since its inception in 1996, assigning a dollar sign to the “benefits,” for Karen, doesn’t quite seem right.
To Karen, “benefits” look more like last year’s Christmas: a group of 56 people—a combination of Haven’s Way™ residents, staff, and alumni—all gathered together at their community hall to celebrate the holidays. “A programming team member’s husband came up to me, put his arm around and said, ‘look at what you’ve created.’ And I said, ‘no, look at what we’ve created.’”
Speaking of we. That’s precisely how Safe Haven got started: with we. During a lunch date with her now-husband—John, a man she calls her “everything”—a question came up: what did Karen wish she’d had, support-wise, growing up? A lightbulb went off. What followed was a period of frantic napkin-scribbling in which Karen and John laid the initial plans for Haven’s Way™. Afterwards, they took the napkins—tear-stained, wine-stained—to their lawyer’s office to get the process underway. “So really, all we need to do is raise three-quarters of a million dollars, buy some land, build a house, find a couple houseparents, and we’re done!,” John had said with naive, no-big-deal confidence.
“I want to share my story. I want to give hope to others like me, because there are so many. The world doesn’t owe us—but we owe the world. I truly believe that.”
Less than a year later, that seemingly-impossible to-do list had become a reality. The doors opened. The first girl walked in, ready to change her life.
Along with her husband and the Haven’s Way™ community, Karen draws constant inspiration from her four children, three of whom are technically step-children, though Karen doesn’t distinguish them as such. “I feel it’s an honor to have four kids,” she says. “And because of how I grew up, that connotation of a step-mother just doesn’t sit well with me.”
When I ask about her plans for the future, Karen says she’d like to write a book. “I want to share my story. I want to give hope to others like me, because there are so many. The world doesn’t owe us—but we owe the world. I truly believe that.”
As for her immediate plans? A visit to her youngest son—Michael, 22, who is on Safe Haven’s Board of Directors—is on the horizon. Karen is giddy over the prospect of seeing her son. “The longest I’ve gone without seeing him is forty-two days!” she says with a laugh. “He’s been my greatest teacher in life, and my brightest light. I am so blessed.”
Writing: Mica Lemiski