Lessons of Hope… Project H.E.L.L.O.

If I rewind five years, I recognize that the anticipation of the Christmas season was something I marked with commercial milestones such as the arrival of Costco’s Christmas aisle or the transition from white to red cups at Starbucks.  Three years ago, in December of 2009, my students taught me the true meaning of Christmas. 

Our story began when a group of Best Buddies (our extra-curricular leadership students) asked if we could incorporate some visits to the Downtown Eastside as part of our leadership program.  Our intention was to visit Hastings Street during the winter season and hand out food and clothing.  A couple weeks before our visit I read an article in the Vancouver Province debating the merits of the social programs on the Downtown Eastside (DTES), questioning whether they helped or enabled the lifestyle.  I sat wondering what it would be like to rely on handouts and I thought about the reasons we wanted to help.  Recognizing that our students gained so much by giving, I began to question how we could give the homeless community the power to give during the Christmas season.  I met with the Best Buddies, and suggested we make some handmade Christmas cards and offer the homeless community the opportunity to send messages to friends are family.  Luckily our students embraced this idea and eagerly made our first cards.  We assumed that many people would take the cards and give them to friends living in their community.  We hoped that one person would decide to write to friends or family that they had lost touch with… but we had no idea what to expect.

During our first visit, I headed to the DTES with three students and a handful of cards.  It was late November and Christmas wasn’t really in the air, especially on Hastings Street.  Cautiously, and somewhat awkwardly we initiated our first conversation with a woman named Sandra who stood in the cold leaning against Carnegie Centre. We asked if she would like to write a Christmas card to any friends or family.  She smiled and asked if she could send two.  She had limited dexterity and asked the students to write for her. 

Sandra chose two cards.  The first one was for her daughter Samantha who she had not heard from in ten years.  Last she had heard, Samantha had two children and was living in Alberta.  She wondered if Samantha had more children now.    She also wrote a card to her mom Noelle, wishing her a Merry Christmas.  We promised Sandra we would do what we could to track down her family and mail the cards on her behalf.  That afternoon, we left the DTES full of hope, as we had met seven people who had reached out and opened their hearts sending Christmas wishes to family they had lost touch with. 

The next day, students met in my office and we started to search the internet for possible phone numbers.  The first calls we made were to Alberta, searching for Sandra’s daughter.   On the second call, a woman answered and let us know her roommate Samantha was at work.  We explained why we were calling only to learn that Samantha had assumed her mom had passed away after searching for her with no success.  Samantha reached us, ecstatic to receive the card and learn that her mom was OK.  She wanted us to let her mom know she was OK, and to let Sandra know that she had four grandchildren. She also asked us to tell Sandra that her mom Noelle had passed away six weeks before our call.  We knew we had to go back and find Sandra again…  and we knew our project had just become so much more than a one day fieldtrip.

We began to call our project ‘Project H.E.L.L.O.’ which stands for helping everyone locate loved ones. During that first season we took five trips to the Downtown Eastside.  Word of our project spread through the media, igniting a fury of activity as citizens across the province wanted to help.  Our students spoke to newspapers, radio and TV networks, sharing our story but also sharing names of people we were looking for.  All of a sudden we had people who offered to help: community centres, pharamists, small town post offices, the BC Housing Commissioner, and compassionate citizens.    From our first seven cards, we were able to find 5 of the families.  We had set out hoping to help the homeless but we quickly learned that we were the ones gaining so much.  We had never anticipated what our project would mean to the recipients of the cards, and we had not expected to hear so many personal stories about families impacted by poverty, drug use, mental illness and homelessness. We were so inspired by the lessons we were learning.

Although school let out for the Christmas break a week before Christmas, our students did not leave.  They searched the internet, used the phones, made connections and mailed cards right up until December 23rd.  On Christmas Eve we realized we all had shopping to be done, but the commercial side of Christmas just seemed so irrelevlant compared to the gift our students were giving these families.  In our first year, we were able to make 74 connections sending hand crafted cards with messages of love to the families of people on the DTES.  We searched for ways to reflect on our project and provide appropriate closure.  The message back from our students was loud and clear.  They did not want a wrap up event, instead, they felt this was just the beginning.  They asked if they could go back to the DTES and host an event sharing the stories of the connections they had made.  Our students wanted to find a way to express their gratitude to the homeless community for trusting them with their stories, and welcoming them into their lives.  The students hosted a gratitude event on Hastings Street and an evening of reflection for our school community.  They also decided to write about their experiences in a book entitled ‘Lessons of Hope: Rekindling Relationships and the Human Spirit in Vancouver’s Darkest Neighbourhood’. (This can be read online at http://www.bookemon.com/book_read_flip.php?book_id=78640&size=1.4&style=popup2)

In the spring of 2010, we received an email from Hawaii.  Word of our project had spread to their state sparking action with social services groups wanting to implement Project HELLO to help their community.  They decided to run a similar program offering Mother’s Day cards.  We loved the idea and followed suit, preparing Mother’s Day cards and returning to the DTES.  Again we were overcome with gratitude as the homeless opened their hearts and entrusted us to deliver their messages.  Many also embraced the opportunity to send updated photos home to their moms.  We returned to the internet and the phones trying to find families.  Our students received heartfelt notes from the moms, many who had not heard from their children in years.  We also received notes from mothers not impacted by homelessness who were just touched by the story and had a new appreciation for their relationships with their children.  Again the community reached out and helped us make connections.  Our students surprised Sandra and Samantha with a Mother’s Day gift they will never forget.  Our students fundraised and arranged for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a weekend with her mom.  Together we watched them reunite at the airport, share family photos and catch up on lost time.  They re-opened the lines of communication and promised to stay connected.

 Although many of our students were nearing graduation, they made a commitment to continue with Project HELLO. Now, three years later, we are about to begin our 4th season.  Local elementary schools (Coquitlam River and Baker Drive) have joined forces and are making beautiful cards for our project. Our alumni continue to be involved, speaking to schools and community groups about our project, managing our website (www.projecthello.ca ), and mentoring younger students as they begin to volunteer with Project HELLO.  Our students have also become actively involved in volunteer work at the local homeless shelter in the Tri-Cities.  To date, I am incredibly proud to share that our students have helped make 261 connections.

Personally, the journey with our students has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It has taught me the power of human connection, the importance of family and the positive difference our students can make when they help strengthen others and develop a strong sense of social responsibility.  I have learned that everyone has a story worth hearing, and that hope exists, even in our darkest neighbourhoods.  And so, as the leaves start to change colour, and others are thinking about Halloween, I am eagerly anticipating the Christmas Season and our fourth season of Project HELLO.  Next week our alumni will help me share our story with our new students, and we will again begin our journey of shifts at the homeless shelter and card making for our fourth season.  Together, we will continue to learn ‘Lessons of Hope’ and discover the true meaning of Christmas.

The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings….

As the weekend comes to a close, I sit here reflecting on the past few days, fully appreciating the professional development I was able to participate in.  In just three days, I was able to learn about anxiety with Dr. Lynn Miller, ask myself if I am a multiplier with Liz Wiseman, improve my social media and blogging skills with Grant Frend, question how we use awards with Chris Wejr,  focus on Mental Health in Kids with Keli Anderson, and shift my thinking around instructional technology with David Warlick.  I was also able to experience something new  by participating in pro-d that I did not attend as I made an attempt to ‘lurk and learn’, joining in Twitter conversations with my colleagues at the CPVPA Conference in Whistler as they explored networked leadership with George Couros.  A shift has occurred and professional development no longer feels like something that happens on designated days, but rather a way of learning on a continuous basis, connecting and sharing with others. 

After three great days, I have new knowledge, a greater professional network, and inspiring ideas.  However, as I reflect on the weekend, what I am most cognizant of is the feeling I have inside… I feel connected, inspired, full of new ideas, and excited to try new things when I return to school on Monday.      As I enjoy the positive energy that comes with these feelings, I stop and asked myself, “Is this the way teachers feel when they leave staff meetings?”  Unfortunately I know the answer.  I asked myself another hard question.  “Do we design staff meetings the same way we design great lessons?” And again, I know the answer is no.  If we believe we are a community of professional learners, then perhaps we need make our best effort to model great teaching with our staff.  

As I brainstorm what makes a fabulous meeting, I have put together a list of ideas and questions that I hope will help lay the foundation.  To organize my thoughts, I have come up with ‘The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings’.

The 5 F’s for Fabulous Meetings…. 


Let’s wake up our brains.  In so many meetings we offer coffee and pastries.  The coffee dehydrates us and the carbohydrates put us to sleep.  We know from our understanding of Brain Compatible Learning that we learn best when we are hydrated and consume brain compatible foods such as almonds, berries, whole grains, and protein rich foods. (I would add broccoli to the list because of its super-food qualities but I’m pretty sure a meeting has never gotten better by adding broccoli).   Let’s mix up the menu so we are ready to learn.  


I am a firm believer that we are not learning when we are not having fun.  When we are interested and engaged we want to learn more.  Find ways to build laughter into a meeting. Laughter is contagious, spreads happiness and reduces stress.   Not only does it boost energy levels, it relaxes us, brings focus, and leaves people wanting more.

Use icebreakers, games and group activities to build teamwork.  Create an environment where staff appreciate one another and have an opportunity to learn from each other’s strengths.  Find ways to connect as a staff so that everyone feels like they are part of the school.  Start with 50/50 draws where the profit is donated to a scholarship fund for your school. 

 In the workshop I attended on mental health, the McCreary Centre confirmed that a student’s connectedness to school is the 2nd most important factor in developing resiliency (after family connectedness).  I would assume the same is true for adults, and connectedness to a career would likely be one of the most influential factors to adult mental health.   Make sure meetings allow for staff to get to know each other to build cohesiveness. Happy teachers = happy kids.


No one wants to have their time wasted. Start meetings on time.  If possible, end early.  Most people prefer meetings that end a little early to those that start late.

Staff meetings are typically run at the end of the school day.  This means that from a marketing perspective themain competitor is free time where teachers have the autonomy to choose whether they run extra-curricular teams, assess student work, connect with colleagues or leave work to attend to personal and family commitments.   In other words, we have some stiff competition.  We need to keep this in mind and make sure that we create meetings that are meaningful, learning focused and efficient.

Plan the agenda like you would plan a great lesson.  Ask yourself what the learning outcomes are for the meeting.  Have a great beginning, collaborative time to learn together and a great ending.

Expect staff to be focused as well.  We expect students to actively engage.  Expect the same from staff. I once participated in an icebreaker where we were asked to write down everything that was going through our mind for two minutes (grocery list, things to do, etc).  We were then asked to fold up our lists and put them in our back pockets and to clear our mind of those competing thoughts until the meeting ended.  As educators, let’s promote a learning environment where we are mindful learners.


Do we plan meetings the same way we would have ten years ago?  Are we embracing new ways of learning?  Bryn Williams, Vice Principal of Centennial Secondary recently tweeted “What if we allowed for twitter streaming during a staff meeting to collect data…. Now that would change the conversation around phones in schools.”

Are we modeling learning as we prepare for meetings?  David Warlick, keynote speaker for the BCPVPA conference began his presentation with a quick YouTube clip on the Berlin Lights Festival.  He shared with us that this was something he had learned in the past 24 hours.  To model learning, he never prepares a presentation without learning something new in the process.

We also know that learning does not always take place within four walls. Movement and learning are connected so why do we often have all our meetings in the same room, with the same physical set up?  Let’s get moving!  Move the chairs, change up the room, or build movement into the agenda… Perhaps incorporate walking, breakout rooms, or even some outdoor learning.  At our school we have approximately 70 teachers.  We also have approximately 70 seats on our two school buses.  I wonder what we could learn together if we saw the community as our classroom.


If we hope to continually improve, then we need to collect feedback on both the content and the delivery of meetings.  Our district has recently purchased Thoughtstream as an online data collection tool.  Perhaps we can ask some great questions about our staff meetings to find out what our staff like, what they would change and what they hope to accomplish during our meetings together. 

How can we collect evidence of the learning?  Let’s use collaborative time for staff to accomplish together what they cannot do apart.  Have groups report out and make sure this information is made available to staff.  Perhaps we should end staff meetings with exit slips or other feedback tools to discover what worked, what didn’t, and what questions we may need to explore.

I’m looking forward to our next staff meeting, eager to implement some new ideas.  I’m hopeful that our staff will leave the meeting with the same positive energy I experienced after attending the BCPVPA conference.  Let’s hope they leave with some new F words on their mind…. Food, Fun, Focus, Forward Thinking & Feedback.

  I absolutely welcome your comments and ideas. Share what makes a fabulous meeting.  Let’s build a collection of great ideas!

Ten Lessons in Leadership from Reality TV

Last night I sat with my family watching The Amazing Race. As we watched the twins self destruct and face elimination, both my husband and I were amazed at how little responsibility the players took for their actions.  They chose to blame others for their failure rather than accepting the fact that their decision making had led them to last place.  This was a teachable moment for our children as we had a family discussion around owning your own behaviour.

I have always been fascinated by human behaviour and perhaps that is why I secretly (or not so secretly now) admit that I love reality TV.  The lesson from last night’s Amazing Race episode prompted me to think about others lessons I have learned from reality TV shows.  Perhaps as my own way to vindicate my less than cerebral entertainment selections, I have created my Top Ten Lessons in Leadership from Reality TV.  Enjoy!

Leadership Lesson #10 from the Amazing Race… Take Responsibility

Life is an amazing race full of adventure.  Celebrate where life takes you but take responsibility for your actions and recognize that where you are today is a reflection of your choices. Don’t blame others for where you end up.

Leadership Lesson #9 from Big Brother… Expand Your Horizons

Get out of the house.  We all act a little stir crazy when we stay in the same environment for too long.  Expand your horizons, network, connect with others beyond the walls that confine you.  (as a disclaimer I will add that I actually don’t watch this one)

Leadership Lesson #8 from World’s Deadliest Catch… Take Risks

Take calculated risks.  Don’t be afraid to try something new. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.  However I don’t suggest you throw yourself into the middle of the ocean unless you know what you are doing!

Leadership Lesson #7 from Survivor…  Take Care of Yourself

Have a good breakfast.  Exercise. Get enough sleep.   Maslow was right.  Our needs must be met in hierarchical order.  Our basic needs must be met first before we can learn or help others learn.

Leadership Lesson #6 from The Apprentice… Relationships Matter

Build strong relationships.  If your team had the ability to fire you, would they?  Be true to your work, true to your word and care about the people around you.  Work as a team and celebrate what you accomplish together.

Leadership Lesson #5.5 (oops I had an extra one) from Secret Princes…  Embrace Good Luck

Think positive.  Sometimes something small flourishes into something beautiful and takes on a life of its own.  Dream big and believe in magic.

Leadership Lesson #5 from The Voice…  Be Curious

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Make good decisions based on evidence. Dig a little deeper to find out what people are about.

Leadership Lesson #4 from America’s Got Talent….  Recognize Strengths

Every one of us prefers to spend time at things we are good at.  Use a strength based approach to recognize the unique gift in everyone and build on these strengths. 

Leadership Lesson #3 from Extreme Makeover Home Edition… Build Community

Share stories. Reach out to one another.  Create communities that support one another. Believe in the genuine desire of others to make a positive difference.

Leadership Lesson #2 from Dancing With the Stars…. Model the Way

Share your talents.  Teach others.  Get creative and have fun!

Leadership Lesson #1 from The Bachelor… Live a Life Full of Love

This really is our greatest purpose.  Love your family, friends and your work.  Put your heart into what you do.  Accept the final rose.

Note:  Honey Boo Boo – as hard as i tried I cannot add this to the list.  the only lesson I can take from this show is that sometimes we really need to turn the TV off!