(Contributed)                                (From left) Kristi Blakeway, Maple Ridge resident Miranda Tymoschuk with Cindy at Save On Meats in Vancouver in August 2016.

(Contributed) (From left) Kristi Blakeway, Maple Ridge resident Miranda Tymoschuk with Cindy at Save On Meats in Vancouver in August 2016.

Maple Ridge principal offers hope over lunch for Downtown East Side residents

Harry Hooge elementary principal Kristi Blakeway started program in 2013

Kristi Blakeway first met Cindy when she was handing out water on the Downtown Eastside.

The current principal of Harry Hooge elementary was walking the sidewalk along Hastings Street in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood as part of a new project, Beyond Hello.

Cindy was going to kill herself. She had planned to jump in front of a city bus, but instead accepted an invitation to lunch by Blakeway.

Over lunch at Save On Meats, Blakeway discovered that Cindy was battling HIV, hepatitis, and a heroin addiction. Her only reason to live would be the hope of once again seeing her daughter.

When Cindy was a teenager in Ontario, she gave up her baby for adoption. It was her biggest regret in life. Now, 25 years later, all she knew was her daughter’s birth date and first name, Paige.

Blakeway took that information and that evening spent hours on Facebook looking at every profile with the first name Paige that lived in Ontario. Finally, she found one that stuck out. The woman was the right age and had not been active on Facebook for a year.

Blakeway found a man on the woman’s friend list that looked responsible and clicked on his profile and found they had a mutual friend in common. That friend was Aaron Robinson, the son of Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson. Blakeway called him up and found out that the first person’s profile she clicked on was a friend of his who was also a friend of Paige.

Within a couple of hours she had Paige on the phone with her.

Paige was also searching for her birth mother. But she had her own struggle with addiction. Blakeway explained to her that her mother had a rough life living on the Downtown Eastside and agreed to reunite the two women.

During this process, Blakeway discovered that as Paige went through recovery, she took solace in a book by Dr. Gabor Mate, called In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The book featured stories from the Downtown Eastside, and one character in particular named Celia had inspired Paige to get clean.

Paige wrote to the Vancouver doctor to thank him for sharing Celia’s story. What Paige did not know was that Mate had been Cindy’s doctor, and Celia’s story was the story of her own mother.

“It’s a pretty crazy story,” said Blakeway, who reunited the mother and daughter in 2014 and has stayed in touch with them since.

Blakeway started helping people on the Downtown Eastside reconnect with their families and friends in 2009 with Project HELLO.

HELLO stands for Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones. At the time, she was working as vice-principal at Dr. Charles Best secondary in Port Coquitlam. The project was simple. Students created blank cards that Blakeway and a team of 10 to 20 students took to the notorious strip for people to fill out. Then in 2013, the project “switched gears a little bit” when she was working at Thomas Haney secondary in Maple Ridge.

“We found that the people writing to their loved ones had quite a story to tell and sometimes a small card wasn’t enough space,” explained Blakeway, who came up with a new idea in 2013.

The new idea was to take a person to lunch and share their story.

“I blog about the experience and the people stories in hopes of helping shift the perception of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside or our local homeless population,” Blakeway said.

She goes to Vancouver whenever she can find time and will reach out to student alumni to see if anyone is interested in joining her. She always finds plenty of volunteers. Some of the students who go have been part of the project since it started and are now in university. Some are high school students that Blakeway keeps in contact with at Thomas Haney or Westview secondary.

Blakeway and a couple of students, as part of the new project, head to the Downtown Eastside and hand out items such as water or gloves and invite a person to lunch.

Or sometimes they take people they’ve already met, like Cindy, for a meal.

“I was actually quite happy last week. I was supposed to meet Cindy for dinner and she canceled on me because she got a job. She’s working now and she was really tired,” said Blakeway.

“That’s okay. It’s a good reason.”

Every year, Thomas Haney secondary sends students to help at Christmas time. This year, for the first time, students will be doing the program in Maple Ridge.

Now Blakeway finds herself as a go-between, not only for people trying to make contact again with lost family and friends, but also for those trying to locate loved ones on the Downtown Eastside.

“Quite a few families have contacted me when someone has died or vice versa if they pass away, sometimes the shelters will contact me and I’ll try and reach the family again,” explained Blakeway, adding that her students even helped plan a funeral service last year for one of the ladies who they worked with on the Downtown Eastside.

Blakeway has also been contacted many times in the last year by family members letting her know that their loved one has died from a fentanyl overdose.

“Quite a few of the people I have blogged about have passed,” she said.

But the sad stories don’t surpass the happy ones like when Blakeway and a student from Thomas Haney spent hours trying to locate a mother in California to tell her that her son was still alive.

“She didn’t realize her son was still alive and the rest of the family thought he had died. But she said she prayed every night,” said Blakeway.

“We phoned her on Christmas day and let her know her son was alive and he had written her a card. So that was pretty amazing,” she said.

Blakeway, who will be the principal at Westview secondary come January, feels that as a society approaching homelessness, often only the basic needs are thought about like clothing, food and shelter.

“We forget about the emotional needs and that we need to feel connected,” said Blakeway.

“We need to feel like we belong before we let ourselves heal.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Email your cooking questions to Chef Dez at dez@chefdez.com.
ON COOKING: Chef Dez does parsley pesto

Pesto traditionally has fresh basil but parsley is a tasty alternative

A cyclist was struck on Lougheed Highway at 209 Street on Monday afternoon. (Neil Corbett - The News)
Cyclist injured after collision with car on Lougheed Highway

Police, fire and ambulance respond to call in Maple Ridge

Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Community Services’ Better at Home Program is now offering a grocery delivery program for seniors. (Special to The News)
Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows organization now delivering groceries for seniors

Community Services’ Better at Home Program filling in the gaps of Thrifty Foods Sendial program

An acro performance as part of the Greg Moore Youth Centre’s talent show video. (Special to The News)
Maple Ridge’s talented youth featured in Youth Week video

BC Youth Week marked by Greg Moore Youth Centre

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

Elias Pettersson and the Vancouver Canucks drew a large crowd to the Abbotsford Centre in 2019. Canucks management hopes the crowds return for the planned AHL team this fall, and early returns are positive. (John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
Canucks: ‘Incredible’ early interest for Abbotsford AHL tickets

Team has had a strong response to both e-mail information and priority ticket lists

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Most Read