Beyond HELLO: Feeling Alive

Les

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.

IMG_1253

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]

Miraculous Moments: Beyond HELLO Day 2 – Cindy’s daughter is found

Life is full of miracles.  I’m not exactly sure why we choose Cindy from the crowded streets of the Downtown Eastside.  She just seemed to be the right person at the right moment.  When we left Cindy after our first day, I questioned whether our trip had done more harm than good.  We left Cindy behind, sick, drug addicted and longing for money we were not willing to provide.  We left with a promise – a promise to try and find her family and send messages of love – a promise we hoped we could keep.

And this is when the miracles started to happen.  Late Wednesday night I sat awake writing my first blog post about Cindy.  I also searched Facebook and found a profile for a girl with the same name that Cindy had given us of her daughter who she had given up for adoption in Ontario.  She had the same first, middle and last name that so I was optimistic we had found her.  I sent a message and the waiting began.  A couple hours later I realized the last Facebook post on this page had been months ago so I felt discouraged, not knowing whether or not the message would be received.  And then I had an idea…. what if I randomly scrolled her ‘Friends’ list on Facebook to find someone active with their account who could perhaps reach her.  I scrolled past 20 or so photos – and then the first miracle took place…. I saw the magic words (1 mutual friend) under a man’s photo.  It turns out one of my students from years ago went to University with a guy who went to grade school with Cindy’s daughter in Ontario.  Within minutes my student and I connected and he confirmed he is great friends with the man in Ontario and he would try and help.  By mid day Thursday, Cindy’s daughter sent me a message, confirming her identity and wanting to connect with her mom she has never met.

Overcome with joy, Cindy’s daughter and I began to email back and forth.  She is a writer and an artist and writes poetry under the pseudonym Keronica.  Two years ago she requested her adoption papers in search of her mother.  She had found out her mother’s name and knew she had travelled to BC decades ago.  Not knowing anything else about her mother, she has been writing poetry about the topics of ADHD, addiction and adoption.   With her permission, I share with you this poem that she wrote before I contacted her about wanting to meet her mother.

Frakasine, in t-shirt and jeans,
was nursing her head on the sofa.
The previous night, she was drunk and uptight.
Now she is calm, but hungover.
Upset she knows little about her mother
and even less of her dad,
she dragged herself to happy hour,
drank herself drunk, and went home sad.
In feathered boa, miniskirt,
and heels with tiny straps,
she called out to the bartender,
“Martini- make it fast!”
Across the room, she danced and pranced
until her feet could take no more.
She tried to sit on the barstool- misjudged-
falling, backside on the floor.
“Are you okay, Miss- are you alright?”
A kind woman asked while standing above her.
“I’m afraid I’m not and never have been,”
asked Frakasine, “could you be my mother?””
I don’t think so,” the woman replied,
“my only child’s at home- he wasn’t planned.
Being a parent is a full-time job…
If I could help more, I would, but I can’t.”The woman kept talking as
she helped the girl up.
“I suppose some decisions are easy,” she said,
“whereas others are pretty tough.”

Right then and there, Frakasine understood
why her parents, perhaps, had chosen adoption;
some things are much harder done than said,
tough decisions can lead to even tougher options.

The woman spoke, “don’t despair, Frakasine,
you’re not alone, just take it from me.
Sometimes you may think your parents forgot about you,
but in their own ways, they know what you’ve gone through.”

And at the exact moment of Frakasine’s epiphany,
her parents awoke from within the same dream.
Such sorrow, still felt from ‘giving her up.’
Both wonder constantly…
how has she been?”

Amazed at these connections, I ask Keronica (not her real name but I will use it for this blog post) to send a photo.  She sends me a photo to share with her mom.  I print out the poetry and the pictures and plan for day 2 of Beyond HELLO – hoping to find Cindy again.  Keronica and I work out details and she waits in hopes of speaking to her mom for the first time.
During our planning stage, Keronica also emails me to say she is fascinated by the work of Dr. Gabor Mate – author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – she recommends this book to me as an educator as it gives an inside look at addiction.  In fact, Keronica is so moved by Dr. Mate’s work that she has been in contact with him via email asking if she can share her poetry with him on addiction and ADHD to which he has agreed to receive.  I let Keronica know that this is another strange coincidence.  Dr. Mate and I share a mutual friend through my last school Dr. Charles Best.  When I began Project HELLO in 2009 he signed a copy of his book and thanked us for our work on the Downtown Eastside.  It is a gift I treasure.   And then – another miracle…. when I google the phone number of the government funded home that Cindy lives in, Gabor Mate’s name pops up.  Intrigued – I click the link only to discover that he has been the resident doctor with the organization supporting Cindy.    Amazed, I write to Keronica to let her know.  We keep our fingers crossed that we will find Cindy on Friday and make the connection.
Friday…
This morning David and I met at 10 AM to drive downtown.  With photos and Keronica’s poem we are hopeful that we will find Cindy.  We walk to her residence and meet with the workers at the front desk.  They are hesitant to get Cindy as her mental state can vary and they don’t know if she can handle our news as she is quite sick and unstable these days.  They worry our news may trigger depression.  I think the opposite and wonder if our news could give her hope and inner peace.  The worker knocks on her door but returns to say she did not answer and that she is sleeping.  We leave our number and they agree to call us when they see her.  We agree to stay in the neighbourhood.
Approximately an hour later, we decide to move our car to a new meter and charge the phone for a couple of minutes.  As we drive down Hastings, we see Cindy dancing on a street corner, next to another lady we know from our project.  We quickly park the car and approach Cindy.  She looks at us, we look at her – and there is a pause where I am not sure if she is happy to see us.  That changes in an instant.  She is in a great mood and busy selling plants.  She has three beautiful potted plants – two lavender and one aloe plant that she is selling.  I have no idea where they came from, but I’m shocked at how many people who clearly do not live in this neighbourhood are walking by asking how much?   Cindy tells me the plants are $5 each.  I offer to buy two making her day.  For some reason I feel better buying plants than giving her cash, even though I know where the money will go.  However, there is something symbolic about the plant and the connection we are about to make.  The thought of watching is grow sits well with me.IMG_0821 IMG_0816
We ask Cindy if she remembers our lunch meeting two days ago.  She looks at me like I’m crazy and says of course!  We then proceed to tell her we have found her daughter.  In this photo you can see the emotion as she is shocked and overjoyed.  Tears flow and at one point I reached to support her as she appeared she may faint.  She reads her daughter’s poetry and listens as we tell her everything we know about her daughter.  When we tell her that her daughter travelled to BC at a young age, she smiles and comments that she has her mom’s adventurous spirit.  She hugs me tightly, clings to the photos and begins to celebrate by showing her friends in the neighbourhood the photos.  She asks us to join her in a corner store to show the shop owner who she knows.  He offers to take a photo for us.IMG_0799 I then ask Cindy if she ever met Dr. Gabor Mate, filling her in on her daughter’s interest in his books.  She looks at me with what I first suspect is a blank stare… and then says – do you mean Dr. Mate – the author of ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?’.   I say yes.  She is stunned – not only was he her doctor, she IS one of the people in the book that he has written about, chronicling her pregnancy journals from her last pregnancy just five years ago.  She cannot believe her daughter has read the book that is about her.   Neither can I.  Another miraculous moment.
 With life seeming to fall into place,  Cindy is ready to go to the hospital and asks if we can take her.  Armed with photos of her daughter she has found the strength to get better.  We ask if she is ready to call her daughter and she says not quite yet – this is overwhelming – I’m not quite ready.  David asks her what she plans to do with the third plant.
Inspired by the events of today, Cindy asks us to join her at a community garden on the DTES so she can donate the plant and write a note to her daughter to leave beside it.  She finds an old paper plate and within minutes writes a beautiful poem to her daughter.  She gets close to the earth and using her hands, she begins to dig the soil and plant the lavender.  Beside it she leaves the photo we have given her from our lunch date, and a note saying
donated by Cindy… July 19, 2013…  to my daughter with love…
Spirits – seeds that bleed yesterday sorrow
In search of serenity in a new tomorrow
I comment to Cindy that her poetic spirit seems so similar to that of her daughter.IMG_0802
David waits with Cindy on the street while I go and get the car. In the time that passes 10-15 people purchase drugs off the street from an older lady who looks unassuming, who is a good friend of Cindy’s.  Many shoot up right there on the side walk.  While waiting for the car Cindy lifts up her pant leg, removes her bandaid and injects her leg with drugs.
When I arrive with the car Cindy gets into the front seat and David hops in the back. Again, Cindy’s request is to see the ocean on the way to the hospital.  She is elated and yelling goodbye to friends.  She is hugging the photos of her daughter.  She asks if I have a smoke.  I don’t.  She yells out my car window and within a split second, while we wait at a red light, a lady runs to her passenger window.  Cindy says ‘Canadian’.  The lady hands here a full pack of smokes.  She turns to me and says ‘I need 5 bucks’.  Again, not wanting to ruin the  moment for Cindy I pay for the smokes and we start to drive towards Stanley Park to grant Cindy her wish of seeing the ocean.  It’s 28 degrees in the city, traffic is thick and the drive to Stanley Park takes longer than expected.  Especially when Cindy realizes we do not have a light.  Regardless, she sits with her head out the car window marvelling at the sights of Downtown Vancouver and the ocean just a block away.  She is mesmerized by the beauty.  It has been more than twenty years since she has left the Downtown Eastside.  We enter Stanley Park and she almost jumps out of the car when she sees a man smoking.  I slow down so she can get a light.  She sees the ocean but wants me to keep driving to a beach area so she can put her feet in the sand.  While we drive I hand her my phone and also show her pictures of her mother, who we have also found but have not heard back from through Facebook.  She is awestruck by the iPhone itself, commenting that the world has left their community behind with our modern ways of connecting.  She sees her mom’s photo for the first time in over twenty years and stares, looking at a face that is familiar yet strange.  She comments that she must be older now.  I bring up the idea of calling her daughter just to say hello.  I reassure her that her daughter will not judge.  She says OK.  Since we are driving we decide to find a place to park and phone.
When we see a beach just passed Lumberman’s Arch, we park the car.  As I pay for parking, Cindy walks towards the water.  We are on a grassy hill, looking down at the ocean.  We are steps away from feeling the sand under our feet, and seconds away from calling her daughter when suddenly things change.  The beauty and serenity of Stanley Park escapes Cindy with the sudden realization that she does not fit in.  Children splash in the ocean, families pedal by on bikes, and Cindy stares at a world she does not know.  She is overcome with anger and rage and yells out to the world that life is not fair.  Tears fall and she shouts to the sky that she needs to get out of the chains.  Not really knowing the best way to respond, I give Cindy a couple of moments.
People stare as they pass and we reassure them we are with her and things are OK.  David and I discuss whether we should call an ambulance.  We ask Cindy and she makes it incredibly clear there is no way she is getting in an ambulance.   Cindy then tells me she needs $20 fast to get her drugs.  She is experiencing withdrawal and the pain of her leg is excruciating.  The sights of Stanley Park have shifted from mesmerizing to torturous.  I explain to Cindy that I have no money left to give her, and that no one around us is selling drugs.  This doesn’t sit well as Cindy is now once again fixated on her next hit.  She tells me she needs to get back.
We drive in silence.  Every once in a while Cindy turns and asks for money again.  She mentions that I obviously do have $20 – just not for her.  Traffic is thick and it takes time to crawl along Georgia.  I am in the centre lane.  As we slowly approach Burrard, I try and give Cindy a bit of a pep talk about her strength and the reasons to take care of herself.  I tell her that Burrard St. is approaching.  I tell her it is time to make a decision.  If I turn right, we will get to St. Paul’s Hospital.  If I turn left, I will get to Hastings.  Without hesitation she says left.  I let her know I will deliver the photos and poetry to the front desk.  I drive her home, parking in front of her residence.  Needing a hit, and still upset I am not providing cash, she takes off from the car, taking the two plants with her so she has something to sell to fund her next hit.
With my heart aching for Cindy’s daughter, I send her an email to explain our day.  I explain the love and joy, the photos I can share, the community garden and note left with love, and the trip to the ocean.  Unfortunately the phone call did not happen today.  Her daughter understands, yet feels that contact with her mom is her missing puzzle piece.  She wishes more than anything to speak to her mom before her mom dies.  She is scared this may not happen.  She too needs the connection to heal her soul.  And so, with hope, we agree that in the near future we will visit again, to share her daughter’s newest email and hope that when Cindy is ready, we can help her reach out and make that first call.

All Too Familiar Streets: Day One of ‘Beyond HELLO’ – a deeper look into the stories of the Downtown Eastside

ImageFive years ago, my students and I began Project H.E.L.L.O. (Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones).  Each year at Christmas and Mothers’ Day we head to the streets of the Downtown Eastside and invite the homeless to reach out and re-connect with friends or family who they may have lost touch with by sending one of our handmade greeting cards.  We then return to the schools and use the internet and phones to search for families.  To date, we have successfully connected over 300 homeless people with loved ones through cards, phone calls and a special face to face reunion.

The experience has been life changing, as we have gained so much more than we have given.  We have experienced many moments we will never forget, when the rough edges of the Eastside dissipate for a minute, and individuals search their soul to find just the right words to say to their long lost family.  We have listened to heartbreaking stories of addiction, abuse, family breakdown and mental health, yet we have also left feeling inspired by the resilience, hope and love that still exists.    We have cried with parents and children overwhelmed to hear from their loved one for the first time in years.   And other times, we have mailed cards, never truly knowing the impact.   What we do know, is that each person on the DTES has a story.  A story that explains their life and makes them truly unique.   A story that I believe is worth hearing.    For when we understand, we judge less.

Today was day one of  ‘Beyond HELLO’.  The idea was simple.  I would head to the DTES on a hot day and hand out water.  I would then invite one person to go for lunch at Save On Meats Diner, and over lunch, I would ask them some deeper questions to understand their life story.  With their permission, I would share their story and explain that our goal is to help the public understand the people of the DTES and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve.   I invited David Jennings to join me.  David is a  student at the University of Alberta, and one of the students who began Project HELLO with me five years ago.  With two cases of water, an iPad with some thoughtful questions and some good intention we headed to the streets of the Downtown Eastside.

David and I are both familiar with the streets of the DTES as we have visited the neighbourhood dozens of times with Project HELLO, so it caught us both off guard as we approached with trepidation, not knowing what to expect.  How would we invite someone to lunch? How would we decide whom to choose?  What would we say?  We decided to load two bags full of water and walk the streets.  We decided that when the moment felt right for either of us, we would ask.   After two blocks, and brief encounters, we approached a lady who appeared in need.  She stood alone on the street, with ragged clothing, and unkempt hair.   When we offered her a bottle of water, she accepted but said what she really needed was money for a meal as she was starving.  We replied by saying we were just headed out for lunch and we would love for her to join us at Save on Meats if she was interested.  She thought for a second and then accepted our invitation.  Seeming somewhat ashamed to be with us, or to accept our offer, she walked ahead of us at a rapid pace.  I asked her her name, and she replied with one word – Cindy. We introduced ourselves and for the next few minutes we walked behind her, offering water to others as we made our way to the restaurant.  Both David and I had the same feeling.   We had selected the wrong person.  She appeared somewhat erratic on the streets, crossing through intersections diagonally and attempting to ignore or avoid any small talk with us.  The thought crossed my mind to offer her money to eat and find someone else to join us.

As we entered the alcove of the Save On Meats diner, things changed.  Overcome with emotion, Cindy experienced a mental breakdown.  She turned to us and frantically explained that she had no idea who we were or why we were there,  but that she was highly suicidal.  She feared for her life because of a drug debt and believed today was the day she would die of murder or suicide.  In a rage of emotion she frantically explained her suicidal ideation repeatedly telling us she had decided that today was the day.  She could not understand why we had chosen to help her.    David and I helped her with the door, and asked the waitress for a table for three.  We acknowledged the stress Cindy was under and motioned for her to come in and sit with us so we could try and help.  Again overcome with emotion, and with fear in her eyes, she flung herself into the booth and she began to open up… Here’s how it began…

Cindy admits to us that she is an addict.  She calls herself a junkie and knows her addiction has the best of her.  She is also HIV positive and now has full blown AIDS.  Her extremities are swollen and inflamed, and her right leg is incredibly infected.  Her body is in septic shock.  She knows she is nearing death and that she should be in the hospital.  She knows it is time for her leg to be amputated, but she is scared.  Hospitalized recently, she tells us how she yanked her tubes out and escaped back to the Downtown Eastside so she could feed her addiction.

With fear and tears in her eyes, she explains that she has cheated a friend to get her last hit of heroin.  She owes the dealer twenty dollars, and if she does not pay, she knows that either she or her friend will be physically beaten.  Looking in her eyes, I know the fear is real.  She fixates on suicide and the need to jump off a bridge.  She also shares thoughts of robbing the bank down the street as these two options appear to be her only escape.  She has never robbed a bank before, but knows it has been robbed by others so she is willing to try in an attempt to get the 20 and avoid putting her friend at risk.  Although I never give money out on the DTES, something tells me this is different, and that Cindy is telling us the truth.  I hear myself say to Cindy that things will be ok.  We will help take some of the stress off her, let her have a good meal, relax for a while and after lunch I will give her the 20 to pay her debt.  Cindy starts to relax, but is still overcome with fear of what may happen to her friend.  The waitress approaches and Cindy orders a coke, a strawberry shake, a burger and fries.  She then sheepishly asks if she could have the $20 right away, so she can go take care of the debt before lunch as she cannot relax knowing her friend is in jeopardy.  I hear myself agree and hand Cindy $20.    As David and I sit together in the booth, we quickly reflect, both wondering if she will return.  I ask David if he believes her story, and in complete agreement, he says, yes – you can see it in her eyes.

Five minutes later, Cindy returns.  A weight has been lifted off her shoulders and she cannot believe we have helped her.  With panic gone, we begin to see the real Cindy, and begin a great two hour conversation.  Cindy is almost speechless, wondering why we have chosen her to help.  David and I explain project HELLO and through conversation we realize that we have found family members of two of her friends.  We use David’s phone to show Cindy pictures of her friends Rosemary and Sandra, and tell her about the connections we have helped them make.  She is in disbelief and again thanks us sincerely.  She again explains that today was the day.  She had chosen today to die, and was standing on the street contemplating suicide.  Right before we approached her, her thoughts were shouting out that no one in this entire world cared about her.  Looking in our eyes with a calmness and softness that had not existed on the streets, she tells us that she feels a higher power is at work today as we are exactly what she needed.  Through tears of appreciation she tells us that we seem so real and so grounded and she can not believe we have picked her to join us for lunch.  We thank her for her words, and explain to her that this is our first day of ‘Beyond HELLO’ and she is the first person who seemed like they could use some company and a good meal.

As our food arrives, Cindy excuses herself to wash her hands. Feeling like the presentation is not appropriate for a suicidal woman, I remove the knife that is projecting from Cindy’s burger.  She returns with wet hands and embraces her burger and milkshake with childlike wonder.  Although she has lived across the street for twenty years, this is the first time she has been in the restaurant, and the first time in years that she has ordered from a menu.  Despite her appearance the wait staff treat her with respect and it seems like Cindy is no different than anyone else in the restaurant.

Through lunch I explain to Cindy how her story can inspire others.  I acknowledge the heart and spirit that we can see and the life she has within her.  Together we agree that today is not her day to die.  I too don’t know why she stood out to us on the streets, but we all recognize that a reason exists for us to come together. I invite her to tell us her story and ask permission to share it so others can understand the people of the DTES and the circumstances of their lives.  She looks at us with pride and disbelief, moved by the glimmer of hope that her story could make a difference to others.  She is honoured and willing to share….

Cindy moved to the DTES at the age of 16.  She was born to a middle class family in Oshawa, Ontario.  Her mom has a hard working woman who was very health conscious.  Cindy stops and says to me that I remind her of her mom.  I laugh and tell her that I’m in the middle of eating French fries so I can’t be a health nut.  She laughs too and tells me her mom likes French fries too but would only allow herself to have one.  As I continue to eat my fries she continues.  She does not give us details but alleges to an abusive step father as one of the reasons for the move. Before moving to BC she gave birth to her daughter who she gave up for adoption as she did not have any means to provide for her.   Cindy mentions that she has always wanted to find her daughter but she wants to clean herself up first.  She has thought of reaching out to an agency to help but wants to be drug free to make her daughter proud.  Unfortunately she has been in and out of rehabilitation programs, and although she has gotten herself clean twice over the past decade, the lure of the drugs in the neighbourhood always draws her back. In the early days she worked the streets of Vancouver, caught in a vicious cycle of prostitution and addiction.    She speaks of an organization from twenty years ago called the Teen Challenge that really reached out and connected with her.  She says that we remind her of the people who helped her then as she feels so  comfortable opening up with us.

She also speaks of her son who she gave birth to in 1991 with her boyfriend who still lives in the DTES as well.  She lost guardianship of her son and she believes he is now in Montreal.  She spells his name for us and I ask David to check Facebook.  Within minutes, we have her son’s Facebook profile on David’s phone, with a matching name and birthday.  For the first time in over 20 years, Cindy is looking at her son’s face.  She is overcome with joy and holds the phone cheek to cheek asking us if we can see a resemblance.  She explains that her son’s father tried to hurt her recently by yelling out his balcony at her saying their son was in jail for sexual assault.  She says she hates to think her son would be capable of that and she wonders if it’s the father’s way of trying to hurt her.  David and I decide not to tell her that the Facebook post on his page from a friend says ‘Are you still in jail?’

Cindy tells us about her living conditions in her government funded building.  Despite her need for cleanliness, she cannot help but feel the walls are closing in as bugs swarm her tiny apartment entering through the ventilation system.  The smell of chemical fumes is overwhelming.  The hallways have blood stains and splatters on the walls and door handles.  Broken needles are prevalent and her foot is extremely infected from the tip of a needle that is lodged within her foot.  Her leg is red and purple, three times the size it should be and covered in a rash up to her knee.  She walks with a limp because of the pain.    She tells us about another tenant who has beaten her regularly.  She also speaks of an ex boyfriend who lived with her for a while.  Four years ago they too had a child together, another girl,  but the baby was taken into ministry care.  When she speaks of her children you can see the shame she feels yet the eternal love of a mother who never stops worrying about her kids is also evident.   She knows she does not have long to live but wishes she could let them know how much she loves them.  David and I take down the correct spelling and details around each of her three children and promise to share her story and send love if we can find them.

As we finish lunch, Cindy is again in tears.  Her vocabulary and world knowledge is impressive as she explains that her actions as an addict do not align with her moral fibre.  She knows she has hurt people to feed her addiction and she is so ashamed as she knows that underneath she is a  good strong person.  She also knows that she does not have long to live.  She knows her doctor wants her to be at St. Pauls Hospital in the AIDS ward.  She knows she will die there.  When she talks about her recent run from the hospital she explains she was not mentally ready.  She knows her time is almost up but she wants to be at peace with herself and heal some wounds with others.  She talks abut whether or not this is a selfish pursuit.  She explains that she often thinks of people in Auschwitz who died in Concentration Camps.  If they were not given time to mentally prepare for death, why should she be afforded such a luxury?  She wrestles with this though but wants to find peace before she dies.

As the waitress brings us the bill, Cindy seems at peace.  She asks to use the washroom and returns completely cleaned up.  Her hair is wet from quick wash and is now tied in a pony tail off her face.  She has cleaned her face and hands and mentions she has even washed her feet in the sink.  With a new lightness of spirit, she tells us she no longer feels alone, and she believes she is ready to go to the hospital.  I ask if she would like an ambulance or if she would like a ride to St. Paul’s.   Cindy then pauses, and asks if she can ask us for one final request.  We invite her to share.

“Can we please take a detour on the way to the hospital.  Can we go for a drive so I can see the ocean one more time before I die?”

“Yes – I think that’s a great idea.  How about we drive through Stanley Park first?”

“Oh- can we stop for a minute so I can put my feet in the ocean? And could you please take my picture there and share it with my family?”

“Yes.  I think that’s a wonderful idea.  I think you are ready to do that”.

As I pay the bill, Cindy excuses herself for a smoke break outside.  We join her minutes later and point to my car two blocks away along Hastings, an all too familiar street for Cindy.

We approach my car and let Cindy know she can have the front seat.  She mentions her stomach is doing flips.  Perhaps it’s the nerves, perhaps it’s the milkshake, coke, fries and burger that are hard on her system that usually gets by with so much less.  We stand outside my car and the sights, smells and passerby’s of Hastings surround us.   Drawn by her addiction, Cindy looks at me with one hand on the car door and asks if she can please have $20 for one more hit  or some T3’s to stop the pain.  I say no.  Cindy then asks for $10. Then $7 and then $5.  She needs her drugs before she leaves so she can self administer them while at the hospital.  I look her in the eyes telling her I will not give her money to feed the addiction.  The hospital staff have the medication she needs.  Caught in turmoil, she is paralyzed. I tell her I can take her to the ocean, I can take her to the hospital but I will not give her money.  Our eyes meet and we both feel the pain, knowing that the Cindy we got to know has surrendered to the addiction once again.  Her need for just one more hit is stronger than her willpower to escape.  I hear myself say “Cindy,  I think it’s time we should go.” And I know by looking at her that she feels the shame of another broken relationship.   David and I get in the car.  We sit and wait for a minute in case she can find the strength.   Knowing she is not ready, I drive away slowly, with the image in my rearview mirror of Cindy hunched over the parking meter, forever burned in my mind.

Tonight, after returning home, I have located Cindy’s mom and her daughter who she gave up for adoption.  Through Facebook we have located pictures of her mom, son and daughter.  Her daughter is a spitting image of Cindy yet they have never met.    I have sent messages to the mother and daughter, explaining ‘Beyond HELLO’ asking them to contact me about Cindy.  At the very least, I can provide Cindy with pictures of her family.  Perhaps her wish will come true and she can connect with family before she dies.  Late this evening, I feel a small miracle occurred.  After noticing that her daughter has not been active on Facebook for over six months, I decided to click on her ‘Friends’ tab with the intention of picking a random stranger to help me connect.  I then noticed the (1 mutual friend) notation under one of her friend’s photos.  By a strange coincidence, her daughter is friends with a man in Ontario who is friends with one of my ex-students.  This same student actually approached me last year about spreading the word of Project HELLO  in Ontario.  We have now connected and he too hopes that the mutual friend can reach Cindy’s daughter for us.   I do not know what will come of today’s lunch, but I am grateful to Cindy for having the courage to share her story and her willingness to share with the world.  There is good reason to go Beyond HELLO. 

Kids These Days

It’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining, I just finished a run with a friend, I have Starbucks in hand and my kids are off on a weekend adventure with their grandparents so one would think that my head would be full of positive thoughts.  For the most part it is, yet there is this nagging topic I feel compelled to write about.  So, unlike most of my blog posts, this one may come across as more of a rant.

So – here’s what’s on my mind…  I have this little pet peeve, and I just can’t shake it.  Like my otherwise calm neighbour who becomes a different person when he’s on the road with ‘bad drivers’, I find I can feel my blood boil when a certain expression arises.  There is nothing that frustrates me more than the moment when you are mid conversation with other adults and someone says “Kids these days,” assuming everyone will nod in agreement supporting the notion that society is doomed with today’s youth.

To be fair, I understand why the general population may have a poor impression of youth.  I get it. Bad news sells and it is far more likely that criminal activity or social disruption will dominate the headlines.  This notion isn’t true just for teens, it’s true for all ages and an unfortunate reality of the way we allow media to be portrayed.  Believe me, if a newspaper or TV network decided to cover only positive news stories, or the triumph and heroes that emerge with each disaster I would be the first to subscribe.

I also get that I often find myself in conversation with my neighbours, who are truly wonderful people, but whose careers offer a different perspective.  I have re-named our street emergency row as our street would vacate quickly if our city had a crisis as each house seems to have either a fireman, police officer, paramedic or hazmat team member.  With these industries responding to crises, I understand that they are not able to get an accurate perception of average kids or teens.

I understand that my view is also limited in scope as I have not researched all trends in youth behaviour, however I can speak confidently about the type of kids I get to work with on a regular basis.  As a vice principal, part of my job includes the responsibility of student discipline. Yet, unlike the movies would suggest, discipline does not dominate the day.  Why?  Two reasons really.  First of all, we don’t have many kids misbehaving.  Second, when we do, we see it as an opportunity for the student to learn from the situation, repair relationships and leave the situation strengthened so they are unlikely to find themselves in the same situation again.  Our schools are not plagued by bad kids.  We have great kids, who just like adults make some mistakes.  More often than not, it is hurt kids who hurt other kids.  Getting to the root of what is driving their behaviour and helping them heal allows our kids to learn from their mistakes and move forward.

So, if my day is not spent dealing with rowdy teenagers reeking havoc, then what are our teens really like?  This year, I worked the first half of the school year at Dr. Charles Best in Coquitlam, and the second half of the year at Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge.  In June I was fortunate to be part of two graduation ceremonies recognizing the accomplishments of the amazing kids leaving school ready to embrace the world.

When I look at our graduates, here is what I see:  They are fun, they are polite, they are intelligent, they are curious and they embrace the world beyond high school with a sense of curiosity and composure unlike when I was in school.  Unlike the past, they understand that they will likely have multiple career paths and the job they make end up in may not even exist today.  They are technologically savvy, the understand that the questions are just as important as the answers, and they embrace that learning is a lifelong process, rather than a rite of passage they have now completed.  They love their friends, family and community.  They balance the challenges of social media and live with both the communication and connection benefits that it brings, but also the exposure and immediacy that it offers.  When I think back to my own teenage years I can only imagine how different things would have been if every one of my friends had a phone in their pocket with a built in camera and access to the internet.  Let’s just say I’m happy my close friends knew some things about me that we didn’t capture on film and share with the world! I’m sure most adults can relate!

If we look to statistics, the Mcleary Foundation confirms that youth today are far less likely to smoke than youth a decade ago, 84% are in good or excellent health, drug use is not on the rise, and pregnancy rates are stable at less than 2%.  Major injuries have declined and most injuries that occur happen during sports.  Statistics Canada confirms that crime rates continue to decline across Canada, reaching a new low matching levels not seen since 1972. BC has the second lowest youth crime rate in the country with rates falling since 1991.  A study conducted by the BC Ministry and Representative for Children and Youth concludes less than 2% of children regularly present intensive behaviour challenges in schools.  However, children who have been abused become twice as likely to commit crimes, again confirming the notion that kids who  act out may be doing so based on their own hurt.  When our schools and families teach social emotional learning as well as curriculum we can help all students flourish.  We truly have great kids.

Kids today have a sense of responsibility far greater in scope than when I graduated.   They are global citizens, care deeply about recycling, volunteering, taking care of the environment and giving back to the less fortunate.  The kids I worked with this year spent time giving back at local elementary schools, homeless shelters, seniors homes, community events, sporting events and hospitals.  Many have helped raise funds through organizations such as Me to We helping impoverished nations, and some have even travelled to developing countries to help build schools and improve the access to clean water.  They smile, use manners and open doors for people.

As an example of what kids are really like, I’ve included links to two student blogs.

Selin Jessa, a graduate from Dr. Charles Best, is making headway around the world with her scientific research and commitment to leaving the world in an even better place than she found it.  Her blog ‘Thinking Out Loud’ gives a glimpse at her impressive journey.

Miranda Tymoschuk, a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney has overcome more adversity than any child should have to face, yet she uses it as motivation to improve conditions for others.  Please click here to see her story and her current fundraising efforts. http://ilaughlovedream.blogspot.ca

While these two students are the outliers with phenomenal accomplishments, they are not alone.  During graduation ceremonies, the grads from Dr. Charles Best and Thomas Haney were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and in service, earning an impressive scholarship total of over one million dollars.

I am humbled to work with today’s youth as I get to learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our kids are great.  Canada continues to be ranked as one of the top three education systems in the world, and we continue to focus on educating both the mind and the heart.   Our schools, our parents, and our communities are doing a great job. Unfortunately, that’s the news that doesn’t always make the headlines.  However, this is the story we should be telling.   Next time you are mid-conversation and someone mutters the expression “Kids these days,” please do me a favour, and  respond by saying, “Yes, they are pretty amazing aren’t they!”

OK – enough of my rant.  I’m off to enjoy this amazing sunny Sunday.

The Purpose of Education

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”  
Aristotle
 happiness36
Sometimes when we talk about education we lose scope of what matters.  Political campaigns and media headlines emphasize numbers: school closures, class sizes, rising costs and grad rates.  Numbers give us quick answers, and an easy way to compare schools to one another. While math was definitely my favourite subject growing up, I’m not a fan of numbers when it comes to measuring schools.  Of course class sizes, dollars spent and high marks are important, but these pieces of data pale in comparison to what really matters in education.
Let’s take your own school experience as an example.  Take a second to think back to your school days.   Do you recall the number of students in each course, the cost of your annual school fees or the grade point average of your graduating class?  I’m suspecting those are hard facts to remember.  If this is the case, why do we so often turn to quantitative measures when we set school goals or measure a school’s performance?  Quantitative data is easy to measure but I question whether it should be the goal.  When we focus on what really matters in life, we create environments where kids feel safe, supported, connected, inspired, and excited to learn.
What happens if I change the questions about your education.  This time,  what if I ask you to  tell me the name of your favourite teacher, the best class you ever took or the connections you made with others.  I bet these questions are much easier to answer.  When I look back I remember my grade 10 science teacher Mr. Sandy Hill.  Our class always looked forward to the weeks when science would fall in the last block on Friday, as those blocks were dedicated to lessons in life.  He taught us that ‘hallway’ was the most important subject, and used the power of story to teach us valuable lessons about friendship, compassion, and life in general.  In grade 12,  I met my favourite teacher of all, Mr. Rich Chambers.  And here’s the irony – I hated the subject he taught.  Yet I signed up for Comparative Civilizations so I could hear his stories, and experience what it was like to be in his class.   Every morning he greeted each of us at the door with a handshake.  He brought humour and energy to every class.  He had high expectations and he cared deeply about each and every student.  Attendance wasn’t something he had to worry about as a teacher as his class was so exciting that no one wanted to miss it.
Personally, I will never forget a particular April morning in my grade 12 year.  I had a terrible fight with my parents and I had been crying most the night.  When I woke up my eyes were puffy so I wore my sunglasses to school.  Mr. Chambers was at the door as usual, waiting to greet each student.  As he shook my hand he exclaimed “hey – nice shades!”.  I lifted my glasses so he could see my swollen eyes.  He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and told me we would chat soon.  What happened next was perhaps the best ‘teacher education’ I have received.  He did not single me out or draw any attention to my bad day.  Instead, he started the class by saying today was the day we were going to have mini conferences with him in the hall to talk about our progress.  He put a video on relating to the curriculum and began to call each student out for individual meetings.  After two or three students, it was my turn, and he was able to discreetly talk to me about what was going on in my life outside school.  I will never forget that moment where he seamlessly transitioned his lesson to discreetly help me though a difficult time.  Teachers like Sandy Hill and Rich Chambers truly understand that the most valuable lessons we learn in school are lessons in life.
 Now that I’m a parent I think about what I want for my own children.  Here’s what I want their school experience to be like:
  • I want them to develop a love for learning  where childlike wonder develops into an inquisitive nature.  Where they are just as excited to raise their hand in grade 12 as they are in kindergarten.
  • I want them to understand how they learn so they can continue to apply their skills to new content throughout life.
  • I want them to become socially responsible citizens who care deeply about others and take the time to know people’s stories.
  • I want them to have rich experiences in and out of the classroom where they connect with community, explore a vast array of topics, and start to discover their own passions.
  • I want them to play.  I want them to feel safe enough to take risks and embrace their creative spirit.
  • I want them to find balance with skills in technological literacy for a  fast paced world yet equal skill in self reflection, mindfulness and comfort in silence.
  • I want them to be loved, appreciated and understood.  I want them to experience synergy and contagious energy that develops when they truly connect with others.
  • And more than anything I want them to always be happy.  I want them to understand that happiness does not come from getting what they want, but rather from giving to others, expressing gratitude, being active and reflecting on who they are becoming.
  • I want them to learn with passionate educators who believe in educating the mind as well as the heart.  This video, which was beautifully created for the Heart Mind 2013 Conference captures this perfectly.   http://www.educatingtheheart.org
As an educator, I want this for my children and for your children.  Do I also want them to get good grades?   Of course I do.  I’d just rather we focus on what matters most.  When we create learning environments where our children can thrive, the numbers will become a by-product of more meaningful and significant goals.

The Bullying Games: An Inspiring and Creative Approach

Imagine a world in the future, where bullying ceases to exist.  Where those who commit a bullying crime are brought before a panel for two purposes: first to understand their own past and why they acted out towards another, and second, to make things right and apologize for the hurt they have caused.  Imagine a society that cares not only about the bullied, but about the bullies, wanting both sides to heal from the hurt. Imagine a world where everyone plays a role, and helps support one another, so we can recognize the unique and wonderful qualities that exist in each of us.  Imagine.

Last night, for two hours, I had the pleasure of living in this world.  Like a great movie that transforms you from realty, The Bullying Games fast forwarded the audience into the future, into a world where bullying is dealt with effectively.  Built on the premise of The Hunger Games, competing teams spoke of their crimes and competed with one another for the ultimate prize. Compassion, teamwork, understanding and forgiveness moved teams forward as they resolved realistic bullying issues. For two amazing hours, the cast of The Bullying Games entertained and educated their audience, challenging each person to act as a positive force.  While last night was the last scheduled performance of this amazing youth production, their was a buzz in the air as the show concluded.  The standing ovation marked the closing, yet the voices of the crowd repeatedly suggested that this must be a beginning.

Personally, I feel The Bullying Games is the most positive, effective, creative and inspiring approach to bullying that I have seen.  There is a synergy that exists when people come together focused on making a positive difference.  This production is the result of an inspiring story, where students and adults work together to create magic.

The story began with an amazing teacher, Dean Whitson, who wanted to engage his leadership students in a real project where they could develop leadership skills while making a positive difference.  The students and teacher participated in We Day in Vancouver, and left feeling inspired to do something in their community.  They decided to tackle the issue of bullying and began to brainstorm ideas.  Together, they decided that pink T-shirts were not enough, and they decided that they wanted to focus on the positive rather than the ‘Anti’ in Anti-Bullying Day.  With passion and excitement, they crafted up an idea where they could engage an entire school district to work together to create a production of music, martial arts, dance and song with a motivating, thought-provoking and informative look at bullying from both sides.

To begin, the class created Love is Louder Than Bullying shirts.  The leadership students then travelled to schools in Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, and Coquitlam, mentoring other leadership students who took the lead selling the shirts at their schools.  Thousands of shirts were sold.  With the profit made from shirt sales, the students hired a production company, ABC Let’s Act, to write and direct a play on bullying.  However, in the spirit of inclusion and realism, the students took further steps, to interview middle and high school students around the district to share what bullying really looks like.  They then shared their research with the Director, Mandy Tulloch, who then created a meaningful script.  Mandy opened auditions to all SD43 students and selected a phenomenal cast ranging from age 11-18 from a variety of schools, showcasing the amazing talent of youth in the community.  The final product was an absolutely brilliant production, entertaining and educating the audience through music, song and martial arts.

I love The Bullying Games for so many reasons.  Here are a few:

  • It demonstrates the magic that can happen when we work together
  • It started as idea, and gained momentum involving schools from all levels
  • It celebrates the talent of youth in the community
  • It recognizes that bullies and the bullied are both the victims, and sends powerful messages to both sides
  • It began as an idea, motivated not by political campaigns but by the genuine passion of youth wanting to make a difference
  • It is research based, dealing with real issues that kids face
  • It educates and inspires change, through entertainment
  • It teaches leadership skills to youth in a fun, engaging format
  • It is preventative rather than reactive
  • It is age appropriate for students K-12

While last night was the final performance, I cannot help but wonder if the momentum will continue.  The Bullying Games is simply too good to be over.  It is something that every child in BC should see.  Hopefully, the stars will continue to align, and that will become a possibility.

Imagine a world in the future where bullying ceases to exist.  Imagine a society that cares not only about the bullied, but about the bullies, wanting both sides to heal from the hurt. Imagine a world where everyone plays a role, and helps support one another, so we can recognize the unique and wonderful qualities that exist in each of us.  Imagine.  How do we get there?  The Bullying Games is a fantastic start.

I offer my sincere congratulations to the students, staff and community members who worked together to create such a magical and inspiring project.  For more information on The Bullying Games, contact Dean Whitson (dwhitson@sd43.bc.ca) at Terry Fox Secondary.

Redefining School: Thomas Haney’s Self Directed Model

Imagine you are on an airplane, mid-flight, and you strike up a conversation with the passenger beside you.  Together you start comparing high school as you know it from your hometown.  If you are from BC, you would likely share some personal experience while outlining the basic framework: 30 students per classroom, 1 teacher per room, different curriculum for each course, 4 classes per day, 5 days of school per week, 8 courses per year, bells to dictate start and end times, etc.  Although your description may include some variations on school culture and unique attributes, the basic learning environment would likely sound similar regardless of who was telling the story…unless you are from Thomas Haney!

Six weeks ago I began a new position as Vice Principal at Thomas Haney Secondary.  I have held off blogging about the school until now as I wanted to have time to experience the culture and understand the model before sharing it publicly.  Although I am certainly not an expert, I feel confident describing what makes Thomas Haney so incredibly unique!

Thomas Haney is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self Directed Learning. Following a unique model, each student is on a personalized learning program where they have the ability to explore their passions and focus on their strengths as they work towards graduation.  Students develop competencies necessary for life after graduation including communication skills, planning, an understanding of their learning style, organization, negotiation and technological literacy skills.

When students begin grade eight, they become part of a multi-grade Teacher Advisory (TA) Group.  Essentially, this becomes their home base or family at school.  TA meets at the start and end of each day.  Students stay with the same teacher for TA throughout their five years of high school. This allows for very strong relationships between teachers and students, and allows parents to have a key contact at the school for communicating about their child.  The teacher advisor is in frequent communication with the other teachers to stay informed of the progress the students in TA are making in their coursework.

Each day, students use their planner to set their learning goals for the day.  They use the morning TA time to determine what they are going to work on, where they will be working, and what their weekly goals are.  The teacher advisor signs off on the plan after discussing it with the students.

Each course at Thomas Haney is divided into twenty learning guides.  As students complete learning guides, they track their progress in their planner to communicate with their TA and their parents.  Teachers from each course will pace the course and communicate with students about which learning guide they should be working on.  The school is not self paced, though the structure and learning is self-directed so that the students have opportunities to decide what to work on when, and how to demonstrate their learning.  This often leads to creative explorations where students follow their passions  and engage in projects that meet the learning outcomes of multiple courses at the same time.

As students progress through the grades, their schedules allow them more flexibility, and more control over their own learning.  In grade eight, all students are in set classes all day.  Each of the eight set classes meet three times per week.  Many choose to participate in our grade eight laptop pod where every student has a laptop with the necessary resources instead of a bag full of textbooks.  On Mondays, grade eight’s join all other grades in a one hour ‘Y’ block where students choose where to work and what to work on.

In grade nine, each course meets two times per week instead of three. The remaining blocks become work blocks, where students plan their own day and choose their work areas.  Each department has a ‘Great Hall’ where students can choose to work.  Teachers also have flexible schedules with a mix of set classes or time in the great halls supporting learning.  In grades ten through twelve, most courses meet for one set class per week with the expectation that the student attend the great hall at least two times per week to work on that particular course.

What is the result?  Well, here are some of my first impressions.  First of all, the teachers have an increased amount of time to collaborate as they are often in shared work spaces that lend themselves to natural collaboration.  Next, the relationship between students and teachers is very strong.  As you walk through the great halls you see teachers sitting next to students working one on one or in small groups, allowing for individual attention and meaningful dialogue.

What surprised me most, is how able the students are at handling the increased responsibility.  Almost all students rise to the challenge and as a result, there are very few behaviour issues.  As you walk through the school you see students from all grades working in the same areas, helping one another, and working with the teachers to guide their learning.  While working on curriculum, students are also developing competencies that range from time management to creativity.  As an example, just last week, two students who had never worked together before began talking and decided to create this amazing spoken poem about social justice. They will share it live at the upcoming Maple Ridge Social Justice conference.  They will also share this with their Socials and English teachers to see what learning outcomes this project meets.

The open structure and flexible scheduling also lends itself nicely to unique school events during the day such as the recent ‘Poetry Slam’ contest pictured here photothat took place in our English Great Hall.  Next week for spirit week, all students dress in colours representing their TA’s, and participate in a variety of events culminating with the annual Gym Riot where the colours compete in friendly competition.

Finally, what I have recognized in my short time here, is that the staff and students of Thomas Haney absolutely love their school.  They are incredibly proud of the unique model, and appreciate learning in a way that models what we see in the changing workplace.  Graduates leave feeling ready to embrace the world, with the competencies necessary to navigate their next adventure in life.  And, if that next adventure finds them on a flight, I can assure you they will have lots to talk about when they spark up a  conversation addressing what high school is like in their hometown.