Kristi Blakeway had no idea that one-day school outing would turn into a decade-long program of helping the homeless on the Downtown Eastside.
But on Nov. 30, Blakeway, principal of Laity View elementary in Maple Ridge, will be marking the milestone with a new book, called Beyond Hello: Rekindling the Human Spirit One Conversation at a Time.
Blakeway is a planner and writes lists for everything. So she scheduled the field trip to start at noon and end at 3 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2009.
”But we haven’t ended yet,” said Blakeway.
Blakeway started the program when she was working in the Coquitlam school district. Back then it was called Project HELLO, Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones.
Students would make Christmas and Mother’s Day cards and hand them out in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood for residents to fill out. Then the group would try to locate the families and mail the cards.
Not only did the project help the residents of the area, but it also informed the youth who participated about issues surrounding homelessness.
In 2013, Blakeway was working at Thomas Haney secondary when she realized that, while they were offering people cards, a lot of times old wounds would open up and the participants would begin to tell them their stories of how they ended up homeless.
But they didn’t have time to listen to the stories.
That is when she changed the name of the project to Beyond Hello.
Blakeway decided to go to the DTES once a month and take at least one student. They would invite a person to go for breakfast or lunch and listen to their stories. Blakeway then started a blog where she would share the stories and those of the student’s experience.
Last spring, at a conference, Blakeway met a woman who convinced her that her blog should be turned into a book. Blakeway took all the stories online and weaved them with her own personal story and the impact the project has had on her over the last decade and the impact it’s had on her students.
Then, in order to help the neighbourhood they were serving, Blakeway partnered with A Better Life Foundation, an organization that buys meal tokens for people living on the streets, so that every purchase of her book will pay for one meal.
Blakeway wrote the book in one month in order to have it released before Christmas.
She started writing Friday, July 5, just after school let out for the summer and wrote “like a crazy person” until Aug. 7, working mostly at night, when her family was sleeping.
Blakeway said she knows not everybody is comfortable with approaching people on the streets, so she tried to write the book more about connecting and compassion within one’s own life, “whether it means talking to a neighbour you haven’t met or reaching out to a colleague that you don’t really know as well.”
To date, the project has reconnected at least 750 people with their family.
This year between 100 and 200 students at Laity View elementary will be making the Christmas cards the high school students will be taking to the DTES on Dec. 8.
The Grade 6/7 classes, organized by teacher Kirsten Bailey, are also making compassion kits filled with necessary toiletries and winter clothing items such as shampoo, toothpaste, gloves and socks. They are also knitting toques to go in each kit.
About 20 students through School District NO. 42 Student Voice will be heading downtown, most of them from Garibaldi, Maple Ridge, Thomas Haney and Pitt Meadows secondary schools.
Once the cards are filled out, Blakeway has a number of student alumni and teachers who will attempt to track down the families and send the cards.
She says it is becoming more difficult to track families down than it was when she first started the project.
“It’s interesting because, with social media, you would think that it would be getting easier. But it’s actually getting harder,” said Blakeway.
One of the reasons, she said, is that people don’t have land-lines as much as they used to making it harder to find phone numbers through phone directories, even though it is a little easier to find people through social media.
Blakeway estimates that they find the families of 60 to 70 per cent of the people who write cards.
The 30 per cent that they can’t find are put in boxes and revisited each year.
Next week, Blakeway will be heading into classes at her school to give a presentation about what the project is all about.
She said she always gets the students who make the cards to put their first names on the back so when families do write back they can see the impact they have made.
Last year, at an assembly, every student who received a reply read them out in front of the school.
These included one person who wrote that she hadn’t seen her sister in 20 years and last heard from her about three years ago. She wasn’t even sure if her sister was alive until receiving the card. The person told Blakeway in her letter that she hoped the Beyond Hello program continues for a long time and that if they ran into her sister again to tell her that she loves and misses her and cherishes the card.
Blakeway kept one letter from students after receiving it last December. The reply came from the parents of a man they were able to reconnect and who told Blakeway how happy they were to receive “a great note” from him.
Then, a few months later, they sent her another message, to tell her that he had since died from a fentanyl overdose, but how meaningful the card was because it was the last thing they received from him.
Students involved with the project will join Blakeway on Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Bean Around Books Café from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. to share stories with the community. All are welcome with a donation to the food bank. Books will be available for $20, with each book sold buying a meal for someone in need.
Beyond Hello: Rekindling the Human Spirit One Conversation at a Time is available at local retailers including Black Bond Books, Westgate Flowers and Bean Around Books. It is also available at Indigo and Amazon.