As many of you know, I spend a lot of time on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, engaging the homeless in meaningful conversation. The project, Beyond HELLO, captures the untold stories of a neighbourhood often forgotten and misunderstood. Recently, I created a new blog BeyondHELLO.org where I share these stories – and where I encourage others to seize the opportunity to go Beyond HELLO in their own lives. While most the stories I have written about with Beyond HELLO relate to the homeless, the simple concept of buying lunch for a stranger and engaging in conversation could happen anytime, anywhere. This week at school, our students decided to go Beyond HELLO and form some beautiful new friendships… Here’s how the story unfolded:
Last week our principal arranged for our school to host some very special visitors. Residents from a local seniors home filled their shuttle and drove to our school for lunch. In anticipation of the event, we planned the details…. our culinary students set the tables and prepared the meal; our leadership students waited near the door, a yearbook student was ready with his camera and the welcome sign was in place to greet our guests. We took care of the details and everything ran smoothly as expected. From a tangible perspective, the event was similar to what I have seen in other schools. However – this visit was anything but average or routine. This two hours of time was magical.
You see – there are some things we didn’t plan – or at least some things where we could not anticipate the outcome. The first happened just as they arrived. First of all, we did not realize how elderly our guests would be. It turns out that most of our guests were over 90 years old. One spry woman named Dorothy surprised us all when she let us know she had recently celebrated her 101th birthday. As our guests stepped off the bus, some of them struggled to find their footing as they navigated the curves of the sidewalk and waited for their walkers to be unloaded. One woman named Joan reached out her hand and placed it in my hand – not with a sense of panic or nervousness – but just for comfort and a little extra support. Within seconds, I felt a special connection with Joan. Together we stood, holding hands, introducing ourselves, preparing for the walk down our long hallway. A hallway I rush down every day. A hallway that seemed so much more enjoyable when I took the time to go slow.
When we reached the last room down the hallway, our guests sat down to an amazing meal. They enjoyed the lunch and raved about our chef’s homemade chicken pot pie. When the dishes were cleared, we asked if we could invite some students in simply to enjoy conversation. Our guests agreed and our leadership students entered the room. Rather than planning who sat with who, we just let the relationships form. Within seconds, each student had found a senior to connect with. Some spoke in small groups, some in pairs. Together they shared conversation about their high school experiences – marvelling in the similarities and differences of school 3 generations apart. I sat with Joan, and together we discussed her career in nursing, her family, and her love of learning. She giggled as she spoke of Halloween – where she had painted her face black and dressed in costume so the other residents could not identify her. She spoke of her journey learning to paint with acrylics – something she began for the first time just a year ago, at the age of 97. I asked what she would like to learn next year – and she smiled and said she didn’t know yet – but there would be something. Together we chuckled about our dislike for e-readers and and our love for paper books. In one moment, when I looked in her eyes, I didn’t see Joan – instead I saw my grandmother – a woman I miss dearly. A wonderful woman with a generous spirit, and great sense of humour who had also been a nurse and loved nothing more than a good meal and time with family. I know my grandmother would have liked Joan. In fact, we discovered they may have even worked at the same hospital at one time. Holding Joan’s hand and seeing her eyes sparkle was a gift: a delicate blend of new friendship woven eloquently with cherished memories from my past. Looking around the room I could see our students beaming, as they to took time to have meaningful conversations. Their eyes filled with joy as they made real connections sharing stories, building friendships and learning from one another.
Shortly before 2 PM, we thanked our guests for coming, and decided to take one slight risk. You see – our school is just about to embark on an exciting learning journey. One of our fabulous teachers, Nicole Von Krogh was moved by the book and documentary ‘15 Reasons to Live‘. She has decided to weave this into her Family Studies curriculum in the coming months. The idea is simple. She will ask each of her student to be thoughtful and take the time to recognize their 15 Reasons to Live. How they present their reasons will be up to them – some may choose to use technology, others may use photography or spoken word. What’s most exciting is that Nicole’s contagious enthusiasm for her project has inspired many other teachers on staff to join in with their classes. Both staff and students have committed to the ’15 Reasons to Live Project’. So far our staff have found ways to build cross curricular connections blending this project with the learning outcomes for Grad Transitions, Social Justice, English, Learning Support, Leadership and Family Studies. The project has yet to begin but the momentum is growing each day.
Nicole took some time to explain this powerful project to our seniors and we left them with an invitation. Without any pressure, we invited them to leave with ‘homework’. We asked them to think about their 15 Reasons to Live. We also left them with a promise – if they decide to participate – and they are willing to develop their list, our students are willing to use their technology skills to capture the project (perhaps a movie or slideshow that they can pass on to their families). We also left them with the idea of attending a spring exhibit – where students and seniors could shine together showcasing their 15 Reasons to Live.
To our delight, our guests were quite willing to share their stories and think about what really mattered to them. One by one they agreed to do their homework. A retired principal from the group put his hand up and clarified by saying “what I hear is that you are willing to help us with our autobiographies.” We smiled and said yes. With certainty he let us know we could sign him up. Another guest, Frank, chuckled and shook his head in disbelief “We are going to be friends with the Principal! Now this is different!”
In just two hours, our students and our local seniors created magic. They took the time to have conversation that mattered – time to get to know one another on a real level. They took time to go Beyond HELLO.
I’m hoping that this post will inspire you to go Beyond HELLO as well. Whether you are connecting with a senior, a child, a neighbour you have never met, or a passerby whose untold story intrigues you, I hope you take the time to go Beyond HELLO. Invite someone to coffee or lunch and take time to hear their story. If you do, please share your stories at www.beyondhello.org I guarantee you will get more than you give. And who knows – if you are like me, this simple act may just become one of your 15 Reasons to Live.