'SHE'D BE VERY UPSET TO HAVE IT OTHERWISE'
KELOWNA - If home is where the heart is, Norreen Rae Branson will be remembered for sharing her heart with everyone at Metro Community and helping make the destination a home for the down-and-out in Kelowna.
Norreen died at age 61, ultimately of a lung infection, though she'd been in and out of hospital for liver failure and other ailments. Her body was in gradual decline, but according to her good friend Pastor Laurence East of Metro Community, her spirit never wavered.
"She was very feisty, full of determination," East said. "Her memorial Sunday will be a celebration of her life, not a morose affair. She'd be very upset to have it otherwise."
And her life was a celebration. Norreen lived it fully — a true flower child of the 60s — her youth spent exploring the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, hanging out with rock stars and artists. Some still remember her there. Video messages for her memorial were sent from as far as the U.S. and Australia.
Then she made her way to Kelowna, fell in love and had a daughter. But it all unravelled.
In her fifties she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a double mastectomy, lost her lover and began self medicating with alcohol. The fiercely independent woman turned to a life on the street and in time walked through the door of the Metro Community church, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless and downtrodden. There she met Pastor Laurence and began a strong friendship.
The Metro Community brands itself as a church, but East says it's much more than that. It offers those in need a place to go during the day. It's not a shelter, though visitors can have lunch and coffee, wash laundry, help in the community garden or use the music studio. They can gain work experience at the affiliated Metro Movers or at Metro Laundry. It all exists to help people rediscover their dignity. Norreen loved it there. She was gaining a reputation as mother on the street. She would find people suffering in darkness and attempt to guide them out.
"Even when people didn't want to take responsibility for their lives, she couldn't help herself," East said. "Most of the time it was deeply appreciated, occasionally not though. There were few who didn't like her."
Part of Norreen's appeal was her ability to communicate through music. She never stopped being a hippy girl and artists and musicians in Kelowna are very aware of who she is.
"She's very familiar with the rock stars like Hendrix and the Eagles," East said, adding she's a walking encyclopedia of rock knowledge, sharing life lessons with those she meets through rock lyrics. Any time there was a festival or concert in Kelowna, Norreen would be there and if she couldn't afford the ticket, she'd find a way in.
About 18 months ago, Norreen left life on the streets to live under a roof through B.C. Housing. She wasn't thrilled about it, East said, because it conflicted with her independent attitude but it became necessary as she became frail. She didn't forget about the streets though. She was often seen downtown or at the Metro Community, laughing and singing, and just bringing her light to all she met.
"She was too young to die. She was impetuous and like a little girl sometimes. She'll be sorely missed. And from me personally, I'm only 38 and a leader in this community; on some days I was her pastor, on other days she was my teacher. I count her as one of my very best friends. I will miss her a great deal."
The memorial takes place Sunday, at the French Cultural Centre, 702 Bernard Ave. starting with breakfast from 9 - 9:45 a.m. The service runs from 9:45 - 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome and attendees are asked not to wear black and to bring along any art, photos and music that will honour Norreen. Musicians The Cuzeros and Graham Ord will perform.