Beyond HELLO: A Sunday with Purpose

If you drive down East Hastings Street on an ordinary day, you can look out your car window and see the faces of people who have lost their purpose: lost souls, who have traded away hope in exchange for darkness.   Today was different.  East Hastings was alive, and purpose was abundant.  As we arrived just after 12:30 PM, the streets were flooded with activity.  Church groups handed out meals, the local bottle depot managed the crowds awaiting payment, movie extra’s roamed the streets as a back drop for a new film and the  Downtown Eastside Sunday Street Market was in full swing.  It seemed everyone had a purpose, or at least something to occupy their time.

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I too had a purpose, yet today was different than previous months.  Today my plan was to make not one, but two new friends.  You see, usually I travel to the Downtown Eastside with family, friends or students and invite residents of the Downtown Eastside community to participate in Project HELLO or Beyond HELLO.  I then share the stories through my blog.  Last month, a lady named Donna contacted me after reading my blog post through a link a mutual friend had shared.  She asked if I would go ‘Beyond HELLO’.  She would pay for lunch, in exchange for the opportunity to have conversation – with each other – and hopefully with someone living in the Downtown Eastside.  I agreed.

As Donna and I drove, we went ‘Beyond HELLO’.  We talked about family, health, spirituality, intuition and our life experiences.  The conversation went well beyond the surface level conversations that usually occur when you first meet someone.  Instead we spoke about connections that exist between all people and the opportunities we have to act in ways of significance.  We spoke of the importance of listening to our inner voices, and taking time to Be.  By the time we reached the Downtown Eastside, we had formed a connection based on mutual respect and understanding.

As we searched for a parking spot, I spotted Sandra Bonneau, the woman who I believe is the heart of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived the streets for over 20 years, has struggled with addiction, abuse and health complications yet her spirit shines.  Like always, she greeted me with her toothless smile and sparkling eyes.  She was excited to hear that the group of high school students who found her daughter for her five years ago would all be in town for Christmas.  I let her know that they would be back from university and wanted to wish her a happy birthday on December 22nd.  We agreed to meet up and I offered to bring a birthday cake.  I asked if there was anything she needed as a birthday gift.  She replied saying ‘just your presence’.   I smiled and offered her lunch.  She smiled back, knowing others needed our offer more than she did, so she politely declined and we parted ways.

We wandered through the street market, marvelling at the collection of stolen goods being sold in an open market place.  We considered offering lunch to some of the men who passed by with their life’s belongings in  shopping carts – but we didn’t – as we both knew they would refuse.  Leaving their carts unattended would be too substantial a risk in this neighbourhood.  We wandered back up Hastings and offered lunch to a few others who looked like they could use a meal.  Each refused. At one point Donna wondered if perhaps today was just about the two of us going ‘Beyond HELLO’.  It felt as though it was.  We decided to stand at a busy corner on Hastings and let others approach us.  Being still in their neighbourhood seems to be a less invasive approach.  Within minutes we had a lady hoping to help me find Garth (Beyond HELLO – August) and another woman in a wheel chair who recognized me and wanted to let me know about her daughter and the special visit she had with her grandson.  To be honest, I didn’t recognize her.  Have we helped her before? I’m not sure.  She thought so, so I stopped and we had a nice chat.  As we began to wonder if anyone wanted lunch, a lady passed by approaching the crosswalk.  Her hair was tangled and slept on, her clothing reflected warmth more than style, and her eyes were guarded.  Our eyes met for a second, like she was scanning the neighbourhood to make sure it was safe.  She walked by, but then, turned back and looked at us over her shoulder.  I don’t remember who spoke first, but I know her eyes changed, and she looked at us with curiosity and perhaps trust.  We asked if she was hungry.  She said yes – in fact that’s why she was out from her BC Housing shelter.  She was hoping to find a warm meal.  Together the three of us walked towards the Save On Meats diner.

As we walked towards the diner, we walked like three friends.  Shelley introduced herself and made sure she learned our names quickly.  As we entered the diner, she commented on how nice it was – and mentioned it might be a nice spot to bring her boyfriend for his birthday on New Year’s Eve.

As we approached the counter – the waitress explained that we could take an order form and create our own breakfast meal, salad, sandwich or burger.  Shelley suggested we take the forms to the table to sit down together and then decide.  Not wanting to ask if she was literate, I read the menu choices out loud and together we discussed what we should eat.

Shelley thought about a sandwich – and referenced her need to be healthy – briefly reflecting on her time years ago when she worked as an aerobics instructor in Toronto.  She thought a sandwich would be nice – but when I started to ask her about the different bread options  or toppings you could see the decision was too overwhelming.  Between her addiction to crack, methadone use and recovery from being struck by a van last year, she struggles to stay with one thought for more than a minute at a time.  Through our conversation you could see her eyes literally fade in and out of awareness.  In some moments it looked as if she needed to sleep – in others she was alive, present and willing to share with us.  Perhaps because of the perplexity of the order form, or perhaps because the smell of burgers and fries surrounded us, Shelley changed her mind from the sandwich form and said she would rather have a burger and fries.  Donna agreed and ordered the same.  Shelley asked if I would have a burger too.  I explained that I needed to order a salad as I am 1/2 way through a 12 day cleanse with a friend at work therefore I cannot eat burgers or fries.  As the words left my mouth I recognized how shallow it seemed – here I was – explaining to a lady who searches the streets for food – why I am only eating certain foods to detoxify my body.  And yet I also felt it was human to share.  She smiled and I laughed and said “it’s crazy – the things women will do!”  She agreed and let me know she would put the ketchup and mustard on her burger herself.  She then winked and said that was one of her secrets for staying thin.

The waitress arrived with coffee.  Shelley’s cup had an inch of space at the top for cream or sugar.  Shelley let the sugar pour.  Intentionally – enough that the cup started to overfill.  She mumbled about the cup being too full and stirred her new concoction – 3/4 coffee, 1/4 sugar.  As she tried to steady her shaking hand the coffee spilled.  Donna and I wiped it up as she drank – and eventually helped by pouring some out into a water glass.

Shelley shared her life story – growing up with a military police father – where she was never sure if she should get closer or further away.  She didn’t connect with her mom and ran away from home a couple times but was always welcome back by her dad.  Her mom decided to grow distant from her father while she decided to get closer.  When her dad died from cancer twenty five years ago she was devastated and turned to crack.  As a server in bars, she made her way across the  country eventually finding her way to the Downtown Eastside.  She fell in love but lost her partner to cancer as well.  Yet – despite the drug addiction and pain she continually referenced her mantra of staying positive and not looking back.  I asked what that was about – she answered with clarity.  For Shelley it was about god – and staying true to her faith.  She then turned to us with certainty and said – you need to remember you are not where you are at just because of him – promise me you will give yourself credit too.  We smiled.

Shelley ate her burger and fries with urgency. Between bites she would pause for a split second and ask what else we would like to know.  She had questions about her current relationship and wanted our advice.  Her boyfriend wants her to move in with her – and has even discussed marriage – but something is holding her back.  When I asked if he was the one she laughed.  Donna asked if he was the one for now – and she smiled saying he was a good man who really loved her.  She talked about her own behaviours, commenting that many would leave – but he chooses to stay.  She then took time to ask us if we were married and how me met our spouses.  Fading in and out of conversation, Shelley seemed to be hit with a burst of consciousness – and she raised her coffee cup in the air and offered a toast “to happiness, Christmas, and meeting new people.”  Together we clanked our glasses, smiled and enjoyed each others company.

I ended with a usual question, asking Shelley what she wanted others to know about the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. She answered with this: “It’s changing. And what it’s missing is a place to talk.  A place to clear your head and talk through problems. A place to feel safe and have real conversations.”   We smiled knowing exactly what she was trying to say.

As Shelley stood up to leave, she turned back and asked each of us for a hug.  We then had a group photo and promised to send a copy in the mail.  Shelley left to meet up with her boyfriend, Donna and I drove home, all of us knowing we had just gone Beyond HELLO and experienced a Sunday with purpose.

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Go Slow: A Twist on HELLO

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.

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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.

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Beyond HELLO: Feeling Alive

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At 66 years old, Les has already defied the odds.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, those who make it to the age of 40 are considered seniors and eligible for discount cards issued from Carnegie Centre.  Yet, as Les told us late this afternoon, he just doesn’t feel old.  With sparkling eyes and a youthful spirit, he feels alive.  Les has survived the dark days on East Hastings and has lived to tell about it.  He has learned some hard lessons in life, and paid the price, serving time behind bars in Maple Ridge just a few years ago for drug trafficking.  He doesn’t make excuses – he admits he was on the wrong path, and prison was what he needed to make the choice to never go back to old habits.  He lives without regret, and wouldn’t change his past, as it has shaped who he is today. With a toothless smile and laugh lines in all the right places, Les demonstrates an admirable sense of resilience.  Living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood has not dampened his spirit.

 In month four of Beyond HELLO, Les joined my principal Sean Nosek and I for a late lunch today at the Lost and Found Café.  In exchange for a warm meal, Les agreed to let us share his story.  Les reflected on his life with appreciation for the good times, even finding the positive lessons that emerged from his time behind bars.

Les grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, attending local Vancouver schools – Strathcona, Britannia and Van Tech.  He was never really that good at school, and at the age of 18 he had only achieved a grade 8 education.  With a need for adventure and curious spirit, Les joined the army.  In his four years of service he traveled the world, serving our country.  His favourite adventures include the warm Mediterranean water in Cyprus and training days jumping from planes at the Army Airborne School in Alberta.

After four years of service, Les returned to BC and took a job in Prince George.  Initially he worked in the kitchen for Northwood Pulp and shortly after took a physical job in the mill.  He hated the manual labour of the mill and decided to explore his love of the kitchen.  Les reminisced about days when the ‘Keg & Cleaver’ and ‘Hindquarter’ were the top restaurants in town.  He worked his way up from kitchen help to 2nd cook and eventually head cook.  The hours were long, the lifestyle was draining and the split shifts consumed all of his time.  Facing exhaustion, he decided to make a change and venture to Toronto to live near his brother.  It was in Toronto that he found the balance he was looking for.  He fell in love and married his wife, and secured a job as a baker for Loblaws; a job he kept for over two decades.  Unlike most I have talked to, Les preferred to skim over the details of the triggers and turning points that sent him back to the DTES. Yet, unlike most, who live with the pain, Les appeared to be free from his past.  He let us know his marriage fell apart, his brother died, his parents both died and he turned to drug trafficking as his means for survival.  The streets of Vancouver became his home.  Unlike most whose eyes search for approval or understanding when telling of their past, Les is different.  He is matter of fact about the wrong turns in his life, and seems to have forgiven himself for the pain and mistakes in his life.  Perhaps this is why Les has survived to 66 in Canada’s roughest neighbourhood.  His lightness is perhaps his best survival skill.

Today Les lives month to month relying on his old age security cheque.  He receives $1400 / month to cover his rent, food and expenses.  He lives in modest, low income housing yet he takes pride in his home, where he has his own kitchen, his own television and room for his roommate, Smoky the cat.

Through our conversation, we took some time to tell Les a little about our lives.  When we mentioned we were high school administrators, he smiled back at us, saying “that’s ok”, with an understanding that many who have failed at school do not have the fondest memories of the principal’s office.  Les was surprised that we had driven from Maple Ridge to take someone for lunch.  I let him know a little about Beyond HELLO, sharing my goal of taking one person for lunch each month.  I explained my own view, that the neighborhood is plagued by unnecessary judgment and that each person on the streets has a story worth hearing.  He smiled in agreement.

When I asked Les what he would want others to know, he paused momentarily, and then explained how the neighbourhood works.  Everyone knows everyone.  He may not know all the names, but he knows the faces.  It is a community, yet everyone living on the streets has their own means for survival. In the words of Les, “everybody has their own thing – their own way to survive.” I suspect Les’s positive disposition may just be his strongest armor.  His smile spreads ear to ear as he lets us know that even the police walking the streets of Hastings like him now.  They know he is drug free and only sells cigarettes for extra income.

Knowing that Les knows the faces of the DTES, I decided to ask him if he knew some of the people who have shared their stories with me in the past.  We spoke of Cynthia, Garth, and Cindy.  While he didn’t know their names, he recognized Cynthia and Garth enough for us to have casual confirmation about their whereabouts.  Next, I asked him if he knew Sandra, otherwise known as ‘Little Momma’.  I described her in detail, as the first woman I had met on the DTES back in 2009.  I spoke of her slender build, her mobility struggles and her kind heart.  Within seconds, Les knew exactly who I was talking about and with excitement, as if he had big news to share, he blurted out rather loudly – “HEY – did you know she found her daughter!”  With equal excitement, and perhaps less humility I blurted back “I found her daughter!”  Sandra, and her daughter Samantha from Alberta, are the first two people we reconnected through Project HELLO in 2009. Our students were so moved by this mother daughter connection and the human need for family to find each other that they fundraised and paid for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a reunion.  We drove Sandra to the airport to greet her daughter and arranged a full weekend including hotel accommodations, hair cuts, meals, etc.  The experience will always be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It was the springboard for Project HELLO and the inspiration for my students and I to turn our one-day fieldtrip into a lifelong project.  To have someone living on the Downtown Eastside quote this story back to me almost four years later, someone whom had no idea that I had anything to do with the reunion in the first place, was magical.   In a simple second something changed.   Les knew he had made our day, just as much as we had made his.  We ended with handshakes, some photos and a commitment to stay in touch by saying hi next time we are in his neighbourhood.  After paying the bill we ventured back out to Hastings in hopes of touching base with Sandra.  With a genuine eagerness to help, Les called out behind us – “I hope you find her”.  The sound of his voice said more than his words.  In the time it took to eat a meal, Les had another significant moment in a life worth living. Another reason to smile, and feel very alive.

Beyond HELLO: Cynthia’s Flower Shop

In Aboriginal culture, it is a common belief that storytelling is the best way to teach children, pass on legends and strengthen relationships and family.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, over thirty percent of people struggling with homelessness and addiction are Aboriginal.  Yet, we fail to use storytelling to help them heal.  So often we offer food, clothing and shelter to meet their basic needs.  We forget about the emotional needs.  Recently on Facebook, a news story went viral.  It spoke of two states in the USA that have decided to stop issuing welfare cheques to anyone failing a drug test.  Some friends of mine hit the ‘like button’.  And you know what? I don’t blame them.  I get it.  Why should we as a society pay tax dollars to give money to someone who will spend it on drugs.  They must be making a choice right?   I understand the frustration.  Yet, I wonder, if these friends of mine would hit the ‘like’ button if they understood a little more about addiction.  If we choose to look deeper, we can see that the drugs are not the problem. They are merely an inadequate solution – to a problem that lies deeper – the problem that we really should address.  What I know from working on the Downtown Eastside is this.  Not everybody is homeless, not everybody is an addict, not everybody is sick – but everybody is in pain.   The pain began in a variety of ways.  For some it began as childhood trauma, for others it stems from abuse (sexual, physical or emotional).  Some grew up in ministry care while others were mistreated at residential schools.  Each person has a different story, but what I know from my work over the past five years is that every person living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside feels the pain.  They are not there for the drugs.  They are there for the escape from their reality, and for many, each hit offers temporary pain relief.  They are lonely, they are lost, but they are human, and they matter.  And each of them has a story to tell; a story worth sharing, so we on the outside can understand.

If we truly want to help an individual break the cycle of addiction, then my belief is that we have to change the way we respond.  We need to go ‘Beyond HELLO’ – beyond the basic needs, and start to address the emotional needs.  Just as Aboriginal Culture suggest, storytelling is a powerful way to teach, to heal and to learn.  It empowers the storyteller to find their voice and it captures the listener and leaves them a little different than they were before the story began.  I know these stories have changed me.  I hope they change you too.

 

Month 3 of Beyond HELLO Vancouver – Cynthia’s Flower ShopIMG_1255

It’s now 10 PM and I sit here typing, smiling at the way today’s events unfolded. I am so grateful to my students who help make this project a reality, and to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, who time after time, allow themselves to show courage and vulnerability as they share their stories with us.  Today was no different – yet it had a different beginning.  Usually with ‘Beyond HELLO Vancouver’ we journey to the DTES and take someone for lunch.  Later I sit and type out their story.  However, just before I left my home, I felt ready to write.  This didn’t really make much sense as the experience had yet to begin and I was already running late to pick up Anoop, the student who would join me for the day. However, the need was there and I felt I had to get my thoughts down.  Rather than writing, I used the recording feature on my phone and recorded myself talking.  I recited the paragraphs above that you just read.  Interesting, because at the time, I had no idea whether or not the story we would hear today would have anything to do with Aboriginal culture or storytelling.   Sitting here now writing this, I’m smiling, knowing what I have always known about this project.  It is bigger than me. It is not something I create – but something that seems to unfold. I love that this happens to me, and that I am there to experience it.  Today’s story is about Cynthia, a strong, beautiful Aboriginal woman who offers light and warmth to the Downtown Eastside.  With her permission, here is my interpretation of today’s events and her life story.

Around noon, I picked up my former student Anoop and headed to the Downtown Eastside.  Anoop asked how we would pick the one person to join us for lunch.   I smiled and explained that we don’t really pick – we let someone find us. I let Anoop know we would walk the streets and say hello to people and when we felt like it was the right person, we would ask them to join us for lunch.  We walked up and down Hastings Street for five to ten minutes.  We smiled in recognition to many – many we remember from Christmas’s past where they have written to loved ones with Project HELLO. ‘Steven King’ stood guarding his community garden.  Behind him, a sign attached to the fence read ‘drug free area’ yet attached to the sign is a pocket tray of clean needles.  Not a surprise – as images of contrast are everywhere on Hastings Street.  Fancy cars driving by people with their life’s belongings in shopping carts, yuppie condos built next to shelters, and so many speckles of beauty scattered amongst the dark streets.  As we passed the community garden we saw a barefoot woman, rocking back and forth, leaning on a shopping cart for support.  Her hair was orange and buzz cut, she appeared in pain but high on drugs, yet at the same time, intently focused on the last few pages of a book that she balanced on the shopping cart.  As I walked by I glanced down to see what she was reading.  Pride and Prejudice.  A long and difficult read for a neighborhood where many have only an elementary school education.   I smiled and walked on, unfortunately not knowing until later, that the woman was Cindy – the woman who we reconnected with her daughter in our first month of Beyond HELLO.  I did not recognize her with out her long beautiful hair.  However, knowing Cindy’s boisterous personality with wild, ever-changing emotions, I could not help but smile knowing her drastic change in hair style was likely a spontaneous decision.

As we approached the ‘mall’ which is the roughest block of Hastings (on the North Side between Columbia and Carrall) we passed a lady who I recognized from July.  In month one, this woman had walked passed David and I on the south side of Hastings.  She made a comment to us saying something like “be careful down here – there’s a full moon and they are crazy today!”  We smiled and explained a bit about our project.  She beamed with motherly pride as we shared our work.  We showed her a picture of Cindy and she agreed to take our phone number down in case she saw Cindy before us.  We didn’t have a spare pen so we went with her to the Pigeon Community Bank to use a notepad and pen.  In our talks she told us she used to be called Cindy as well.  Both Cindy and Cindy had gone through re-hab together years ago.  This Cindy had stayed clean.  Deciding that she was moving forward with her life – she left ‘Cindy’ behind – and became Cynthia.  Today as we ran into Cynthia, she recognized me but couldn’t quite remember where from. I reminded her about the help she had offered.  Again she beamed with pride for our work.   I asked if she knew if Cindy was still alive.  She then told me I had just passed her – as she was the one with the orange buzz cut.  She let me know Cindy is not doing well as her leg is very infected yet she now refuses to wear shoes as she walks Hastings.  A part of me wanted to run back and say hi, yet a part of me wanted to stay exactly where I was, intrigued by Cynthia’s strength and wanting to know more about her own journey and her resilience to battle through life’s most difficult hurdles.  I asked if she would like to share her story with us over lunch.  In a split second, she eagerly agreed and together Anoop, Cynthia and I walked down the street planning on dining at Save On Meats.

As we approached, we saw that Save On Meats was boarded up, closed for renovations.  However, next to it, a newer restaurant was open.  It is called ‘Lost and Found’ café.  The name alone seemed like a natural fit for our project, so we entered the café.  Inside we discovered a café celebrating world travel, art and philanthropy.  One wall displayed black and white portraits of the DTES amongst images of other hardships around the world.  The centre of the restaurant offered a variety of gifts, all backed by a big sign saying ‘Have a Heart’ – with proceeds from all items going to charitable organizations.    Cynthia, Anoop and I ordered lunch and found a table near the window.  A table where looking one direction showed images of Hastings Street, yet looking the other way offered the cozy sanctuary of a modern café.

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Our lunch arrived and Cynthia began to share her story.

Cynthia is a citizen of the To-quaht Band, one of the smallest First Nations, situated between Ucluelet and Port Alberni.  She grew up in Port Alberni on the reserve, with few restrictions.  As she recalls, you could drink and party at any age.  By grade six, she was drinking alcohol and stopped attending school.  Her mother would come in and out of her life, but spent most of her time in Seattle.  Her father worked in logging so he was not able to be around much.  Her mother’s parents served in a parental role raising Cynthia and her siblings.  Cynthia and her grandmother had a special bond. Even though there were eight children in the house, her grandmother would always wake up Cynthia in the middle of the night when she had a special story to share.  She would put on her kettle, make some tea and wake Cynthia saying “I don’t like sitting alone – let me tell you a story”.  Cynthia relished these moments and would awake from deep sleeps to hear her grandmother’s stories: stories her grandmother passed down from her own childhood. I smiled and told Cynthia a little about my grandparents and the special memories I have spending time with them.  I understand completely the bond she speaks of.  Cynthia also shared a story of a dream she had one night as a child – a dream that one day she would have her own flower shop.  Cynthia found comfort in the images of such a dream.

Cynthia’s grandfather on her father’s side was Chief in Ucluelet and therefore some of Cynthia’s childhood was marked with ceremonial tradition.  When she entered womanhood at age twelve her band celebrated that very day with a ‘Coming of Age’ party.  Her brothers dressed in wolf regalia and were instructed to be next to her – two on her left and two on her right.  They had to follow her for the day and sit together at the community hall.  Cynthia remembers this as a powerful experience yet also a challenging day for a twelve-year-old to endure when really she wanted to run and play.

Unfortunately these days did not last. After her grandpa on her mother’s side died, the ministry stepped in and found new homes for Cynthia and her siblings.  Some went to live with aunts, while Cynthia and one of her sisters were put into foster care in Cumberland BC.  They were placed with a Caucasian family who treated them well and had strong religious values.  After about four months of living with them, the family let the girls know they were going to make a drive to Port Alberni to return bottles at the bottle depot.  They asked the girls if they would like to accompany them and visit their relatives in Port Alberni.  The girls agreed and travelled to the reserve to visit.  Once arriving, her friend Danny’s family hid the girls so they never returned into foster care.  This left Cynthia experiencing a range of emotion.   Why did the ministry need to find her a new home in the first place? Why was it so easy to escape? Why didn’t she ever hear from her foster family again?  As Cynthia struggled to find answers, she found comfort in a relationship with her friend Danny.  When she turned 16, her father asked her and Danny to come for dinner.  During dinner he let her know it was time for her to get married.  She was married to Danny for six years, yet by age 22 she needed to escape the cycle of drinking and abuse.  She recalls one evening when Danny dragged her out of a community dance by pulling her hair.  Danny’s older brother stepped in and beat Danny threatening to hurt him again if he ever beat his wife.  Ironically Danny’s brother had also been beating his wife, however, when he saw his younger brother repeat the cycle it helped him stop his own violence.  At 22 Cynthia knew she needed to leave the reserve to feel safe.  Danny and her had two children but Cynthia was raising them on her own.  When Danny returned to town she let him know it was his turn and she needed to take care of herself.  She headed to East Vancouver, following the path of her thirteen year old sister.

When Cynthia arrived in East Vancouver (29 years ago) she played a motherly role to her younger sister who was actively using drugs.  Cynthia was determined to stay clean and managed to do so for two years.  One evening, Cynthia and her boyfriend went for drinks with another couple.  The other couple offered them T’s and R’s  (T’s and R’s are also referred to as poor man’s heroin.  The T stands for Talwin, a painkiller,  and the R for Ritalin, a stimulant.  When injected together they produce a high similar to the effects of cocaine mixed with heroin).  To Cynthia’s surprise her boyfriend said yes, letting her know for the first time that he had used in the past.  Wanting to know what her sister experienced, Cynthia decided to try her first hit.  The experience made her incredibly sick yet she recalls waking up the next day feeling like her mind had taken over her body and she wanted more.  Her sister prostituted to earn money to buy drugs and pay her rent.  Eventually her sister and the sister’s boyfriend told Cindy she needed to start contributing.  She needed to pay money too.   Her sister convinced her to turn her first trick and work the corner.  Craving the high of T’s and R’s Cynthia decided to work the corner once to get the money she needed.  Today, 29 years later Cynthia’s eyes watered as she tells us about her very first night working the street.  She had never felt so much shame.  Despite the money she earned she remembers bypassing the drugs and coming home to the bath washing herself and drowning herself in tears. Her need to feel clean surpassed her need for the drugs, yet a cycle had begun – a cycle hard to escape.  Like many girls working the streets, Cynthia eventually learned how to separate herself from her experiences.  She found a job cleaning for an elderly couple, shopping, cleaning and running errands.  At night she would work the streets.  One day the man she was cleaning for stopped her and said good morning.  When she replied pleasantly he said “oh – it’s nice to see you – I can distinctly tell the difference between the three of you – I can see in your eyes who you are today”.  Like many sexual abuse victims Cynthia began to take on different personalities as an escape from the pain.

At one point, Cynthia freed herself from the DTES and returned home to see her grandmother.  Cynthia was addicted and down to 80 pounds.  When she returned home, she slept for days withdrawing from the T’s and R’s.  Her grandmother wanted to know why she was sleeping so much, and then all of a sudden eating so much.  She told her grandmother everything. Her grandmother didn’t judge – instead it brought them even closer.  Cynthia would sit for hours at the big window in her grandma’s front room watching an eagle.  One day her grandmother sat beside her…

“Cindy I want you to make me a promise”

“What grandma?”

“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”

“What?”

“Promise me first and then I can tell you”

“Ok grandma – I promise”

“When I am gone, I don’t want you to ever come back here”

“Ok grandma I promise”

And so Cynthia left – and again returned to the DTES of Vancouver.  Torn between two lives – a Nation with family history yet plagued by alcoholism or her sister in Vancouver and the cycle of addiction.

For 29 years, Cynthia has survived the streets of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived prostitution, heroin, cocaine, T’s and R’s.  Yet somehow she has overcome most her battles.  Five years ago she successfully completed re-hab. She chooses to stay in the neighbourhood she knows, perhaps because it is home, perhaps because she is drawn to stay. In Cynthia’s words “This street grabs ahold of you – the demon is the rock(cocaine)”.  Yet Cynthia has beat most of her battles and now feels compelled to help others.

Just last month, at age 55, Cynthia went back to school.  She attends 3 days a week learning basic computer skills and eventually Aboriginal law.  Each day she walks Hastings Street while reciting positive affirmations in her mind. She stops to give hugs to so many who need it.  Last year, as she walked the street of her neighbourhood a man from a church group stopped her to talk.  He could tell she was a part of the neighbourhood but that she was clean.  He asked her why she stayed.  Cynthia told him she didn’t know.  He then said “I can see why you are here – you have something important to do here.  People will listen to you. You have a story to tell.”   As she told us this story, Cynthia beamed with pride as she has believed this to be true since that day and now she is starting to see it happen.  Her poem “Goodbye Letter to Myself” was recently published in a local magazine.  She has been interviewed on TV and recently she took it upon herself to speak to a group of Aboriginal youth visiting the DTES.  I told her about my blog and asked if I could share her story.  With pride she smiled “you don’t have to ask me twice”.  As I told her more about Project HELLO I asked if she would ever be interested in joining me to present to youth or to educators.  I shared with her that I have a similar goal, as I want to share our story to help others understand the DTES and understand how students can make a difference.  I mentioned that I would be presenting the THESA conference in October and wondered if she would like to join me.  With a smile as wide as a child racing towards a finish line Cynthia whole heartedly agreed saying today was meant to happen.  She then asked me my astrological sign and smiled as if she already knew when she discovered we are both Leo.  As we finished our lunch, she sat in contentment and offered this “we met for a reason – there is no such things as a coincidence.”  I told her I couldn’t agree more.

I asked Cynthia two final questions.  First, I asked what she would like others to understand about the DTES.  Here’s what she had to share.  “It’s not what people think.  The people down here are real.  They may be messed up, but what they say is real and true.  Before you judge, try to walk a day in their shoes”.

I then asked Cynthia where she plans to be in five years.  Despite her promise to her grandma, Cynthia feels compelled to help her band.  First she will stay in Vancouver to finish course work and improve her employment skills and understanding of Aboriginal law.  In time she will make her way back to Port Alberni.  Her Nation, To-quaht has recently reached a treaty settlement with the government and they are beginning to develop their oceanfront land and create employment opportunities.  Cynthia will use the funds she receives from the treaty for retirement and to set up an RESP for her grandson.  Cynthia smiled with adult confidence and then with a second thought her eyes sparkled ands she said “or maybe I’ll follow through with my dream as a child and open up my flower shop”.

I can’t help but wonder if Cynthia’s flower shop already exists in a metaphorical way.  In Canada’s darkest neighbourhood she is light.  Her hugs, her stories and her courage to make a positive difference offer beauty and serenity just like a fresh cut bouquet of flowers.

We Are All Lost Souls: Lunch with Garth

Finding time to meet friends for lunch can be hard.  We get busy.  We go about our routines and somehow manage to over fill our days running from one commitment to the next.  We have great intentions, yet finding time to sit and truly enjoy one another’s company is a luxury we do not often grant ourselves.  Daily conversations with co-workers and the Starbucks baristas become routine and repetitive.    I am no different.  No matter how many resolutions I set to live with purpose, act with intention and be present I still gravitate to the somewhat meaningless to-do lists, Facebook updates, Tweets, emails and texts.  I blur what matters with what doesn’t.  Yet I recognize that there is nothing I enjoy more than deep, genuine conversation.

Perhaps that’s why I am so drawn to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  On Hastings Street, the sense of urgency disappears.  Technology is scarce, to do lists do not exist and there is no one to impress.  There are no false pretences, no fancy brand names, and no $4 lattes.  People are everywhere.   People have time for genuine conversation and they long to connect.  Yet, in a cruel twist of reality, these are the people we ignore.  We drive by.  We lock our doors.  We think of addiction as a choice and we somehow justify that we are different than ‘them’.  We label them.  Homeless.  Addicts.  Bums.  Crack-heads.  After-all, they are not ‘us’.  We could not end up there.  Not only are we different from them, we know better.  We credit our own success with the choices we have made.

But what if none of that is true? What if each person on Hastings Street is our equal?  What if each of ‘them’ demonstrate an admirable amount of resiliency simply for surviving the painful circumstances of their lives – circumstances we would not wish upon our worst enemy? What if each person wandering the streets deserves to be treated with empathy, love and compassion?  What if every one of ‘them’ has a story worth hearing, a heart worth healing and a soul deserving true human connection?  What if they need more than just  food and shelter?  What if they are just as human as you and I and deserve the respect and dignity that we grant our closest friends?  What if they are actually worthy of our time – time to meet for lunch?

This is how ‘Beyond HELLO’ began.  In the short conversations my students and I have had with the homeless over the past five years with Project HELLO (giving people on the streets the opportunity to write greeting cards to long lost loved ones) we have witnessed pure beauty.  We have experienced many tender moments where faces have softened, eyes have sparkled and glimmers of hope have resurfaced. In our short five minute conversations we have heard the headlines to deeper stories.  Stories worth our time, and stories worth sharing.   With ‘Beyond HELLO’, alumni from Project HELLO and I have set a goal of meeting once a month to take someone from Hastings Street out for lunch.  In exchange for a warm meal, we will empower them to tell their story.  And we will listen, offering a commitment to share their story with others, in the hopes that doing so will soften the hard edges society has developed separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Here is an account of last Wednesday’s lunch.  Lunch with Garth.photo

Armin (grad 2011) and I met in Coquitlam and drove to the Downtown Eastside.  Like the first month, we had no idea how we would choose someone to to take for lunch.  We know from our work on Hastings that many people stick to the same city block for weeks on end.  Since we have chosen Save-On Meats as our restaurant of choice (based on their awesome environment where everyone is welcome and their commitment to the neighbourhood), we decided that we should pick someone within one block of the restaurant.

In a somewhat awkward style we walked the first block observing the neighbourhood.  Like always, we tried to be unobtrusive, yet just by the way we dressed we stood out as strangers.  With a pang of guilt knowing we could not help everyone, we scanned hundreds of faces wondering whom to approach.  A tiny older lady in a yellow sweatsuit and messy ponytail caught our attention.  Despite many missing teeth, her smile is radiant and her eyes are alive.  We approached and said hello.  We explained who we are and asked if she would like to join us for lunch.  She smiled her big, wide smile but explained she could not join us because she had already eaten and because she was busy working.  We asked what she was doing.  She told us she was selling drugs so she could get enough money to bake cupcakes.  To the streets, she is known as ‘Fudge’.  She loves to bake, and if she sells enough drugs in a day she uses her extra money to bake cupcakes which she then hands out on the streets.  She beamed with pride as she explained how much people love her cupcakes.   Fudge couldn’t join us, but she was eager to spread our goodwill.  She pointed to a friend of hers who was approaching us, hunched over a walker.  She introduced us to a quiet, humble man named Garth.  I have to admit, I may have looked past Garth as he didn’t stand out in the crowd.  She explained our offer, and Garth told us he would need a second to take it all in.  He was stunned.  He turned to us and said “I don’t know if I am the best person – I might not like the lunch they are serving today.”  We told him that he could order from the menu and he could pick his own lunch.  With bewilderment, he told us he could not believe his luck as no one had taken him to a restaurant in fifteen years.  In seconds, Garth started to share his story, often at a rapid pace, describing his own journey woven in with historical facts about Vancouver.  His only concern was that lunch may not be enough time for him to tell his story.

We entered Save on Meats and asked for a table for three.  We waited a couple minutes for a table to clear.  Some restaurant patrons glanced inquisitively as Garth’s appearance is toughened from the drugs and street life.   We made our way to a booth and glanced at the menu.  With childlike enthusiasm Garth asked if it would be ok to order french fries and a milkshake.  We agreed and placed our orders.

I took some time to explain Project HELLO and Beyond HELLO and ask Garth’s permission to tell his story.  Not only did he agree, he was proud of this new role, all of a sudden feeling a sense a purpose.  Something he hasn’t felt since his days at an mail sorter with Canada Post.  Despite the circumstances and battles he faced outside of work, he always felt a great sense of purpose once he got to work.  His face brightened as he told us eagerly about the places he has worked:  an extra on Beachcombers and 21 JumpStreet, a security guard at Expo 86 and a 20 year graveyard employee with Canada Post.  Garth described himself by saying “I’m a simple guy.  I’m a passive person – just don’t piss me off.  All I ask from others is that they don’t lie and don’t steal.”  We agreed to those terms and began to get to know one another.

Garth grew up in poverty, living in one of Vancouver’s first Co-op housing units with a single mother and three siblings.  His father worked on the tugboats but was not around much.  Garth wonders if his father is still alive.  His mother worked hard to raise their family but she was not the warm and affectionate type.  Garth reflects on his childhood and how much his mom’s hugs would mean to him.  As he got older his mom was not the ‘huggy’ type but she would often say to him “let me put on the kettle and make us some tea.” To Garth, his mom’s tea and shortbread cookies meant the same as a hug.  This is something he misses dearly since his mom past away many years ago.  Around the time of his mother’s death a falling out occurred between Garth and his siblings.  Battles over the will and the distribution of mom’s limited possessions left the family fighting with one another.  This was the last time Garth saw family.

Shortly after his mom’s death, Garth was in a major car accident.  He was hit head on.  The impact caused his tools from the back seat to fly forward and hit him from the back.  It took emergency personnel hours to rescue him from the vehicle.  Garth endured a sixteen hour surgery to overcome the impact.  Miraculously he survived.  He now walks with a walker and has a metal chest plate to help with stability.  He also contacted Hepatitis C through a blood transfusion.  As he told us this he chuckled at the irony – that he is now an addict on the Downtown Eastside yet his Hepatitis is from a blood transfusion.

Wondering why he was still alive after his mom’s death and his car accident, his life lacked meaning.  That feeling lasted until the day he was at Metrotown Mall and he met his soul mate Sylvia.  Like his mother’s hugs, Sylvia provided comfort to his life.  The two married and lived together in the Eastside of Vancouver supporting one another.  In 2001, Syliva became quite sick needing Kidney dialysis.  Garth supported her around the clock helping with her medical care.  One evening he asked a friend to help so he could go out for a couple of hours.  He returned to discover his wife dead.  His friend had decided it was best to end Sylvia’s suffering by holding a pillow over her face.  In an absolute rage, he walked the streets for 72 hours not knowing how to move forward.  He turned to drugs for comfort.  As described by Dr. Gabor Mate, heroin often provides the same feeling as a warm, soft hug – the exact feeling that Garth was missing from his life.

Garth has continued to have his own medical struggles. He described one incident when his lungs filled with liquid and he was essentially drowning.  He was again hospitalized but once again lived to tell about it.  He credits his pain management skills to his training in judo and karate as a child.  He is proud of his ability to control his mind enough to separate it from the physical pain.  He is also proud that he dreams in colour.   Through conversation, Garth asked if we could try to find his sister Lisa.  She is fifteen years younger than him and he essentially raised her when their mom was sick.  She called him ‘Uncle Garth’.  He let us know that just recently he has been wanting to re-connect with her.  He tried asking the RCMP to help but they were unable to help without a valid reason.  He is hopeful that we can help.  So far, despite our searches, we have not found Lisa LaBrash (born in 1976).  We will continue to try.

As we reminisced, Garth stopped to thank us, as it has been a long time since someone has listened to his story.  He is aware enough to know he is psychologically stuck.   With clear articulation, he admitted “I am my own worst enemy.  You haven’t seen anything until you have seen the worst in yourself. I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror for a long long time.  But I am ready.  I want to find my sister again.”

We thanked Garth for taking the time to tell us his story.  I decided to apologize openly to Garth for the judgement and lack of understanding given to their neighbourhood.  He understood and agreed that more is needed.  Yet then he smiled and said, “you know we judge you too right?” I ask him what he meant.  He told me that from my clothing and the way I held my notebook he had determined I was a cross between a social worker and a cop.  I corrected him and let him know I am a Vice Principal at a high school.  His face lit up and he chuckled – “see – exactly – a cross between a social worker and a cop!”  I smiled at his wisdom.

I asked him three final questions.  First – what does he wants people to understand about the Downtown Eastside?  His answer was simple.  “We are all lost souls.  This is rock bottom.  This is the bowels of hell.”  I asked him where he sees himself in five years.  It is something he hasn’t thought about in a long time.  The question intrigued him and you could see a glimmer of hope as he pondered where he could be.  He let us know it’s a good question to leave him with.  Finally I asked him if there is anything positive about the Downtown Eastside.  With his shoulders relaxed and a more peaceful expression than when we first met him, he reminded us “Every day you open your eyes is a beautiful day.”

We exchanged contact information and agreed to be in touch.  We thanked Garth for sharing his story. He thanked us, still amazed that someone had taken the time to buy him a meal and listen to him for a couple of hours.  We left with a handshake and a smile, grateful that we had taken the time to go ‘Beyond HELLO’, genuinely connecting with friends over lunch.

Mom and Daughter Speak for the First Time: Beyond HELLO Day 3

photo[1]Millions of people around the world waited in anticipation for the birth of a Royal baby today.  For William and Kate, and the Royal watchers, today is a significant day in history -as a Royal baby signifies a new beginning and a new family bond.

In stark comparison, I too waited in anticipation today.  I walked the streets of Canada’s darkest neighbourhood – the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, in hopes that I could find Cindy, an HIV positive woman who struggles with mental illness and addiction.  I crossed my fingers and hoped that today she would be ready to reach out and hear her child’s voice for the first time.

I first met Cindy last week when we began ‘Beyond HELLO’, a school based project where we reach out to the homeless community with compassion and understanding, and listen to life stories.Our goal is to provide hope to the Downtown Eastside residents and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve as we attempt to breakdown down the us-them mentality that seems to plague our society.  To read part 1 and part 2 of our story , click on these links.

Part 1: All Too Familiar Streets  http://bit.ly/1bKJny7

Part 2:  Miraculous Moments   http://bit.ly/13W2mhq

Today our day began as a scavenger hunt.  The streets were busier than usual and behaviours seemed more extreme than normal.  Even the familiar faces that normally welcome us to the neighbourhood seemed a little less cheerful today.  Probably a combination of the hot weather, the full moon and the monthly pay day – still two long days away.  We walked the streets for an hour hoping to find Cindy.  We decided to see if she was at home, and took the elevator up to her floor of the government funded building. The elevator itself seemed more like a crate, with nothing but stained metal sides and cracked buttons.  Through the narrow halls we found her door, with a memo stuck to it, requesting her to bag her clothes so they could spray for bugs.  We knocked and waited.  No answer.

Back on the streets we walked up and down the hot pavement.  In casual conversation we spoke to some residents, often showing Cindy’s photo and asking if they had seen her.  Most had.  Cindy is well known in the DTES as she has survived the streets for over twenty years.  Despite her temper and drastic mood swings, there is something very likeable about Cindy.  She is intelligent, articulate, creative and passionate.  Despite her traumatic life story she is a strong woman.  When she opens up, and makes sincere eye contact, you can see her soul buried under layers and layers of hurt.  She has had a tough life, and is her own worst enemy, yet underneath a woman exists with moral values and a big heart.  As we spoke to others on the street, they each had something positive to say.  One woman told us about her journey through detox with Cindy.  Fortunately for this woman, she has managed to stay clean.  She suggested we try InSite, the safe injection site.

As we entered InSite, we were caught up in a steady stream of clients trying to enter the building through a narrow entrance ramp.  Others leaving shuffled their way through the narrow path bumping into one another in the tight space. Some brought their bikes in with them as there is no security in leaving them unattended on East Hastings.   The staff were busy checking clients in and out so we stepped aside to the waiting area until they had a moment. The staff at InSite are wonderful, nurturing and respectful, and spent time listening to us about our project.  They could not release confidential information but they told us that they would be happy to help as messengers by passing on information to Cindy.  We left a note with them including Cindy’s daughter’s phone number and then make our way back to the streets.

In our last attempt before heading to the car, we saw Cindy, just steps away from InSite, standing in front of the community garden where she planted the lavender for her daughter just last Friday.  Cindy looked alive and vibrant today.  She was wearing jeans, a red tank top and a grey headband.  She almost looked stylish – a drastic comparison to her outfits last week.

David and I approached Cindy, again not knowing whether she would welcome our visit.  This time she did.  She started by saying she could not believe our timing as she was just thinking about us.  I told her that I had more news about her daughter.  I let her know that her daughter had shared more poetry and we have printed it for her.  I also let her know that her own daughter has lived a life with some similar struggles.  She too had a baby at 16, and she has also struggled with addiction.  Cindy realized this means she is a grandma.  I let her know her granddaugther’s name and tears of love poured down her face.  Her legs became weak and she had to hold on to me for stability.  The news was so powerful that she needed to sit.  Beside her on the dirty streets she had an over stuffed brown teddybear.  She used the bear as her pillow and sat down.  Cindy stared deeply into my eyes not wanting to miss a single word as I told her about my emails back and forth with her daughter.  I assured her that her daughter understands her, and let her know that her daughter would love to say hi.  Cindy looked to me for strength and said ok.  I called the  number and listened to the rings at the other end.  After three rings I began to worry that we would not make a connection.  Then, I heard the voice of her daughter on the other end.  I let her daughter know that Cindy was ready to say hello.

Cindy took my phone and whispered “Hi baby – it’s your mom”.  Tears fell and she reached out her hand and took my hand.  She squeezed my hand tightly and I encouraged her to keep going, rubbing her back while she spoke.  The first thing she asked her daughter was whether or not the adoption agency gave her the twelve page letter she had left explaining all the reasons she had to give her up.  They had not.  Like a woman on a mission, Cindy condensed the 12 pages into a three minute explanation about her teenage years, her abusive boyfriend, her lack of support and her most difficult decision.  Her daughter understood.  The conversation became a bit lighter and the two of them discussed pottery and poetry.  Both women have an artistic, creative spirit, and felt the connection with one another.  Cindy then listened as her daughter spoke.  While I did not hear what her daughter said, I know it was heartfelt as Cindy’s emotion was one I cannot even describe.  All I can say, is that her face was overcome with expressions I have only witnessed through media after a tragedy has occurred.  With a mix of love, anguish and grief, her mouth seemed to stretch back,  and her eyes focussed intently as tears poured from her face.  It was the most raw emotion I have ever experienced.  I cannot find the words to describe it well but know I will never forget the image.   Soon, overcome by her emotion, Cindy tilted her head back and let the phone fall gently from her hand to the sidewalk. I picked up the phone to see how her daughter was doing.  I asked Cindy if she had anything else to say.  Through grief she asked me to tell her she loved her.  I told her she had the courage to say it herself and held the phone to her ear while she whispered to her daughter that she loves her.  She explained that she has full blown AIDS and does not have long to live.  It was a conversation Cindy has dreamed about for over twenty years, yet finding family when life is limited seems so unfair.  With a mix of shame and hope, love and pain, Cindy handed the phone back to me and let her head fall gently back on the sidewalk against the teddy bear. I let her daughter know I would be in touch soon and we hung up.

We sat with Cindy as she cried, staining her daughter’s poetry in fresh tears.  For the first time in Cindy’s life she has heard her baby speak.  She heard forgiveness for her most difficult decisions.  She heard acceptance despite her lifestyle.  Through loving words, a mother daughter connection was made, helping both of their souls heal.  Their missing puzzle piece is now found.  For Cindy it is bitter sweet.  She has waited her whole life to feel the unconditional love that exists between a parent and a child and has now found it near the end of her life.

Together we sat hand in hand on the hard, stained pavement surrounded by graffiti and the smell of drugs.   Together, despite our surroundings,  we found hope in Vancouver’s darkest neighbourhood.  All because these women had the courage to go ‘Beyond HELLO’.

photo[2]