Go Slow: A Twist on HELLO

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, engaging the homeless in meaningful conversation.  The project, Beyond HELLO, captures the untold stories of a neighbourhood often forgotten and misunderstood.  Recently, I created a new blog BeyondHELLO.org where I share these stories – and where I encourage others to seize the opportunity to go Beyond HELLO in their own lives.  While most the stories I have written about with Beyond HELLO relate to the homeless, the simple concept of buying lunch for a stranger and engaging in conversation could happen anytime, anywhere.   This week at school, our students decided to go Beyond HELLO and form some beautiful new friendships…  Here’s how the story unfolded:

Last week our principal arranged for our school to host some very special visitors.  Residents from a local seniors home filled their shuttle and drove to our school for lunch.  In anticipation of the event, we planned the details…. our culinary students set the tables and prepared the meal; our leadership students waited near the door, a yearbook student was ready with his camera and the welcome sign was in place to greet our guests.  We took care of the details and everything ran smoothly as expected.  From a tangible perspective, the event was similar to what I have seen in other schools.  However – this visit was anything but average or routine.  This two hours of time was magical.

You see – there are some things we didn’t plan – or at least some things where we could not anticipate the outcome.  The first happened just as they arrived.   First of all, we did not realize how elderly our guests would be.  It turns out that most of our guests were over 90 years old.  One spry woman named Dorothy surprised us all when she let us know she had recently celebrated her 101th birthday.  As our guests stepped off the bus, some of them struggled to find their footing as they navigated the curves of the sidewalk and waited for their walkers to be unloaded.  One woman named Joan reached out her hand and placed it in my hand – not with a sense of panic or nervousness – but just for comfort and a little extra support.  Within seconds, I felt a special connection with Joan.  Together we stood, holding hands, introducing ourselves, preparing for the walk down our long hallway.  A hallway I rush down every day.  A hallway that seemed so much more enjoyable when I took the time to go slow.

When we reached the last room down the hallway, our guests sat down to an amazing meal.  They enjoyed the lunch and raved about our chef’s homemade chicken pot pie.  When the dishes were cleared, we asked if we could invite some students in simply to enjoy conversation.  Our guests agreed and our leadership students entered the room.  Rather than planning who sat with who, we just let the relationships form.  Within seconds, each student had found a senior to connect with. Some spoke in small groups, some in pairs.  Together they shared conversation about their high school experiences – marvelling in the similarities and differences of school 3 generations apart.  I sat with Joan, and together we discussed her career in nursing, her family, and her love of learning.  She giggled as she spoke of Halloween – where she had painted her face black and dressed in costume so the other residents could not identify her.  She spoke of her journey learning to paint with acrylics – something she began for the first time just a year ago, at the age of 97.   I asked what she would like to learn next year – and she smiled and said she didn’t know yet – but there would be something.  Together we chuckled about our dislike for e-readers and and our love for paper books.  In one moment, when I looked in her eyes, I didn’t see Joan – instead I saw my grandmother – a woman I miss dearly. A wonderful woman with a generous spirit, and great sense of humour who had  also been a nurse and loved nothing more than a good meal and time with family.  I know my grandmother would have liked Joan.  In fact, we discovered they may have even worked at the same hospital at one time.   Holding Joan’s hand and seeing her eyes sparkle was a gift: a delicate blend of new friendship woven eloquently with cherished memories from my past.   Looking around the room I could see our students beaming, as they to took time to have meaningful conversations.  Their eyes filled with joy as they made real connections sharing stories, building friendships and learning from one another.

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Shortly before 2 PM, we thanked our guests for coming, and decided to take one slight risk.  You see – our school is just about to embark on an exciting learning journey.  One of our fabulous teachers, Nicole Von Krogh was moved by the book and documentary ‘15 Reasons to Live‘.  She has decided to weave this into her Family Studies curriculum in the coming months.  The idea is simple.  She will ask each of her student to be thoughtful and take the time to recognize their 15 Reasons to Live.  How they present their reasons will be up to them – some may choose to use technology, others may use photography or spoken word.  What’s most exciting is that Nicole’s contagious enthusiasm for her project has inspired many other teachers on staff to join in with their classes. Both staff and students have committed to the ’15 Reasons to Live Project’.  So far our staff have found ways to build cross curricular connections blending this project with the learning outcomes for Grad Transitions, Social Justice, English, Learning Support, Leadership and Family Studies.   The project has yet to begin but the momentum is growing each day.

Nicole took some time to explain this powerful project to our seniors and we left them with an invitation.  Without any pressure, we invited them to leave with ‘homework’.  We asked them to think about their 15 Reasons to Live.  We also left them with a promise – if they decide to participate – and they are willing to develop their list, our students are willing to use their technology skills to capture the project  (perhaps a movie or slideshow that they can pass on to their families).  We also left them with the idea of attending a spring exhibit – where students and seniors could shine together showcasing their 15 Reasons to Live.

To our delight, our guests were quite willing to share their stories and think about what really mattered to them.  One by one they agreed to do their homework.  A retired principal from the group put his hand up and clarified by saying “what I hear is that you are willing to help us with our autobiographies.”  We smiled and said yes.  With certainty he let us know we could sign him up.  Another guest, Frank, chuckled and shook his head in disbelief “We are going to be friends with the Principal!  Now this is different!”

In just two hours, our students and our local seniors created magic.  They took the time to have conversation that mattered – time to get to know one another on a real level.  They took time to go Beyond HELLO.

I’m hoping that this post will inspire you to go Beyond HELLO as well.  Whether you are connecting with a senior, a child, a neighbour you have never met, or a passerby whose untold story intrigues you, I hope you take the time to go Beyond HELLO.   Invite someone to coffee or lunch and take time to hear their story.   If you do, please share your stories at www.beyondhello.org   I guarantee you will get more than you give.   And who knows – if you are like me, this simple act may just become one of your 15 Reasons to Live.

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Light: Inside Beyond HELLO – by Sean Nosek

Last week, our school principal, Sean Nosek, joined me in Beyond HELLO.  Today, he posted his own reflection on his blog describing what it was like to go beyond HELLO and take a resident of the Downtown Eastside out for lunch.

Here is his powerful story:   Light: Inside Beyond HELLO

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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.

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’.

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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. 

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.

Lessons from the Lottery

“Luck is when opportunity knocks, and you answer.”  Author Unknown 

Last night as I was cleaning the kitchen a commercial aired on TV advertising Lotto 649.  As the thought of purchasing a ticket ran through my mind, I stopped and asked why.  Why would I want to win the lottery? What would I do if I won?  When you ask others what they would do if they won the lottery, many people talk about living their dream, spending their time and money as they wish.  Dreams often include travel, moving to a new home, helping family, changing or altering careers, spending time with loved ones, and volunteering for meaningful causes.  Thanks to a professor at the University of Victoria, I now think differently about the lottery.

In 2009, I travelled to U-Vic for the Fresh Minds Symposium: a day showcasing university life for bright young minds.  Grade nine students had the opportunity to attend lectures on a variety of topics.  Unfortunately I do not remember the name of the professor I had the pleasure of listening to, but I do remember his story.  He started his lecture with a story about his personal background.  He shared with the students that he had only been at U-Vic for a couple of years.  Prior to that he lived in the Prairies with his family.  He was working full-time, managing his career and family commitments while feeling overwhelmed.  On his way home from work he decided to stop and buy a lottery ticket.  He dreamed of the day he could win the lottery and change his life.  He even decided to make a plan, asking himself what he would do if he won.  He had always loved Victoria and so he decided he would move there.  He had always wanted to do research and teach so he knew that even if he won millions, he would love to work for a local university once settling into Victoria.  With a plan in place he waited with anticipation, hoping he could escape his current reality and live the life he dreamed of.  Unfortunately he did not win.  However, he learned some lessons from the lottery.  He realized he was leaving his life to chance, and that he had the power to create the life he wanted even without winning millions.  Of course he had to take some risks that could be avoided with a million dollar cheque, yet he used his experience as the motivation to start living the life he wanted.  He applied to the University and within a couple of years he was able to achieve his goal of landing a job as a professor in Victoria.

When the commercial aired last night,  I stopped to think: Why would I buy a ticket? What would I do if I won?  Who could I help? How could I best spend my time? Where would I work? Where would my family live?  When I answer these questions I recognize that I have the opportunity to pursue many of these dreams now, rather than leaving them to chance.  My husband Shawn and I spent some time answering these questions.  While we may not be able to make drastic changes to our lives without the lottery funds, we can use this experience to guide us in the right direction. When we have a big decision to make, we can stop and ask which solution aligns best with our dream.  What do we want to learn? Where do we want to live? How can we best give back?  Do we really need a lottery ticket to make these changes?

So… while I wish you the absolute best of luck winning the lottery, I encourage you to stop and ask yourself ‘why’ before you purchase another ticket.  What are your really hoping for? What changes do you want to make? Are your dreams really best left to chance? Or can you make small changes today to live the life you really want.  If we can learn lessons from the lottery to make positive change, then really we have already won.