Kristi Blakeway

Kristi Blakeway

Project Hello reconnecting families

Students from Thomas Haney secondary make Mother’s Day special for the women of the Downtown Eastside

Students from Thomas Haney secondary walked around Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside neighbourhood on the occasion of Mother’s Day.

They had handmade Mother’s Day cards, which had been created by students from Glenwood elementary, and they offered the people living on the streets the chance to send one of the cards to their mom.

They took what information they could, often just a name and a city, and promised to try and get the card to their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

And now, they are seeing how their outreach efforts have reconnected people previously lost to their families.

Project Hello is a program Kristi Blakeway started when she was working in the Coquitlam School District. Now a vice-principal at Thomas Haney, she brought the program here when she came in February.

Blakeway explained that it originally started with a group of students doing outreach work on the Downtown Eastside at Christmas time. They had gifts of essentials like socks, but Blakeway wanted to try and infuse a little Christmas spirit in them, as well.

“I wanted to give people that feeling of being able to give,” she explained.

She had her class make up cards, which she suggested could be exchanged between people in the area.

But when the students offered the cards to people in the streets, the reaction was, “If I write a card to my family, could you mail it?”

How could they say no?

They had seven such requests that first year in 2009, and with diligence and a little luck, they got the cards to five families.

One woman was Sandra, and she had a daughter, Samantha Bonneau, who lived in Alberta. They hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. Sandra had never seen her grandchildren. But soon Blakeway and her students had fundraised enough money for a plane ticket, secured the donation of a hotel room, and even got a complimentary hair appointment for Sandra for the reunion.

The effort became an organization known as Project Hello, and it has now reunited more than 300 people with their families, through card-giving on both Mother’s Day and during the Christmas season.

Not all the reunions are as dramatic as Sandra and her daughter, nor is Project Hello as directly involved in all reunions.

“I would be exhausted,” said Blakeway.

But tear-jerking family reunions are common.

The Thomas Haney students helped a woman send a mother’s day card to a sister in Alberta. The woman on the Prairies said her sister had left her husband and children 12 years ago, and was completely estranged from her angry family.

“Twelve years later, she was overjoyed to hear from her,” said Blakeway. “She didn’t even know her sister was alive.”

The kids offer family members contact information for organizations that work with people living on the streets in Vancouver, as a way to try and get in touch or keep in contact with their lost family members.

Blakeway said she doesn’t simply turn the kids lose on the streets of Vancouver. They worked in teams that included two students from Jenny Godrey’s Social Justice 12 class, two from Charles Best in Coquitlam and a teacher or adult. Some of the Charles Best graduates have stayed involved in Project Hello.

“We do a little training beforehand, about what to expect, and what to say, and what not to say.”

Thomas Haney student Bailey Hultman has been a health care volunteer and worked for a Christmas hamper family, but  the Project Hello work was more real to him.

The students  worked an area from Hastings and Main to Pigeon Park, talking to people and handing out tokens for meals and granola bars.

“It was definitely like really connecting,” said Hultman.

And she said her efforts, like calling all of the people with a given surname in the Calgary phone book, seems like a small thing compared with the results it can have.

“You do feel a sense of ‘I’m doing something that matters,’” said student Heba Abdulmalik. “Family is such an important thing.”

And she said there are other important lessons to be learned.

“The homeless community – they’re actual people. Walking amongst them and talking to them makes such a difference.”

Student Miranda Tymoschuk compared it with her experiences going to Africa. Some visitors would feel intimidated to even go there, until they learn differently.

“But you can go downtown, and be friends with the people there,” she said.

Blakeway said kids are always very engaged in the project.

“They’re excited, and genuinely interested in helping people.”

“Kids appreciate more. They are more empathetic, and they understand these people on the Downtown Eastside are no different from them – they’ve just had a lot of tragedy in their lives.”