by Jenny Schweyer
It was 2009 and high school counsellor Kristi Blakeway was contemplating ways to help her leadership club at Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam reach out to the homeless and addicted on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). The students were full of ideas: make and hand out sandwiches, maybe have a coat drive. In spite of student enthusiasm, Blakeway couldn’t help but feel like none of the ideas were original. There were already organizations meeting those needs of folks in this notorious neighbourhood. She wanted to do something different, something that would address people’s emotional needs. She also knew that though the students thought they would be doing the “helping”, they would get more from the experience than the people they connected with.
Blakeway began to think about her forgotten scrapbook supplies. Once an avid scrapbooker, life got busy for her, with professional expectations, and raising children became a priority. The scrapbooking supplies gravitated to a forgotten corner. What if the students could make cards out of all that stuff that was just gathering dust? Then, they could take those cards downtown and ask people on the streets if they had loved ones with whom they had lost touch and would like to send a card to. It would be a perfect and logical thing to do during the Christmas season. It would also be something that no one else was doing for this group of sometimes-maligned but nevertheless valuable citizens and human beings.
That trip to the DTES was both eye-opening and life-altering for the students. They came back from the experience so enthused that they wanted to do it again. “Again?” Blakeway had thought. It was only supposed to be a one-time thing. But as an educator she knew that when a lesson takes hold so strongly in students, the idea should be nurtured. They went again the next year, and the next, and the next. What was supposed to have been a one-time outreach soon morphed into Project HELLO (Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones). Since that first excursion, Project HELLO has helped more than 550 people re-connect with lost loved ones. They have even been able to facilitate two face-to-face reunions between downtown eastside residents and lost family members.
Deeper than the heart-warming feeling that comes from helping a person find someone they loved and lost, what Project HELLO is really about is breaking down social barriers and changing the public’s perception of the homeless and the addicted. One of the things Blakeway was surprised to find is an astonishing number of DTES residents are not poverty-stricken or without better options for housing. “Many of them have money, resources, family that would take them in,” she says. The problem is shame. “They believe that this is the life they deserve, that they don’t deserve better,” adding it’s like a form of self-punishment. They confine themselves within what she calls “the invisible fence.” Says Blakeway, “It’s like there is this barrier around these two square blocks.” They rarely venture outside of those bounds. Blakeway once met a resident who said his dream was to see the ocean. She was floored. “The ocean is literally three blocks away!”
Today Project HELLO is active in a number of Lower Mainland schools, including Dr. Charles Best Secondary School, where the idea originated, and Blakeway’s current school, Harry Hooge Elementary in Maple Ridge, where she now works as Principal. Her elementary students make the greeting cards, which the high school students hand out in the DTES at Christmas. Project HELLO has also added a Mother’s Day excursion to its program.
Blakeway herself visits the neighbourhood once a month on a Saturday and takes a resident out for lunch. She never knows who she’s going to be dining with beforehand. She just walks the streets and waits for the right feeling. She never has to wait long. “I don’t find them. They usually find me,” she says, whether it’s someone who approaches asking for money or someone who just looks like they need a friendly encounter.
She is humble when it comes to her involvement in a movement that she only intended to be a class project. She is proud of the students who were so impacted by their experience that they were compelled to continue. She is also proud of the students and volunteers who make cards, fundraise, facilitate reunions and spend hours trolling the Internet to locate lost friends and family members for Downtown Eastside residents. Most of all, she is grateful for the high school students who show compassion and kindness to a population that may otherwise go days, weeks or longer without a positive interaction with someone who cares about them.