Students Send Christmas Cards of Hope
Pete McMartin, Canwest News Service
Published: Saturday, December 22, 2009
Last summer, Kristi Blakeway’s mom’s freezer gave out.
All the food thawed, and Kristi and her mom, Karen, who had done some catering, decided that instead of throwing it all out, they’d cook everything, drive into Vancouver and give away a hot meal in the Downtown Eastside to anyone who wanted one.
They cooked chicken wings, pork chops, meatballs and sausages — “Just about any meat you can think of,” Kristi said — then packed everything in the back of Kristi’s SUV. By that time, it was 9 p.m. Then Kristi, Karen and Kristi’s two little boys, Jaden, 4, and Cole, 2, drove to the Downtown Eastside. “You know,” Kristi said. “Where everyone takes their two-year-old at night.”
With Jaden handing out plates, and Cole, on Kristi’s hip, handing out forks, Kristi and Karen ladled out meals. The food lasted 20 minutes. Kristi and Karen fed 200 people.
An idea germinated that night. As a student counsellor at Dr. Charles Best secondary school in Coquitlam, Kristi oversees the Best Buddy Leaders and Future Buddies group, a program designed to encourage leadership and social awareness in students.
Kristi wondered if charitable acts like her and her mom’s helped them or merely reinforced their dependency. “They are always receiving,” Kristi said, “but they have very little opportunity to give back.”
With that in mind, Kristi got 180 students to start Project HELLO — Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones. There was what might be called the usual components to helping the homeless during the holiday season — the handing out of clothing, the serving of meals.
But there was something else. Kristi had her students create hundreds of handmade Christmas cards.The cards, left blank, would be distributed to any of the homeless who wanted one.
They could write whatever message they wanted on the cards to their families, then return the cards to the students who would send the cards off to the families. It would be a simple act, but one that called for the card writers to give of themselves. They would be giving their families the assurance that they were still alive.
In that November week, the students handed out the cards, a couple of newspapers ran stories on them and their project. Several cards were made out, and the students were able to reconnect a couple of people with their families. Everyone involved felt good about it. And that, it seemed, was that. “But then,” Kristi said, “things really got interesting.”
That first foray into the Downtown Eastside had whetted a greater appetite among the students. Another trip was planned. In an email, the school’s vice-principal, Darren Stewart, who took part in that second trip, described what happened: “So, on the cold, clear Tuesday,” Stewart wrote, “Kristi, some staff members (including myself) and 20 some-odd kids went down loaded with clothes, hot chocolate, and Christmas cards . . . We started just outside Carnegie Centre and then Kristi took one group of four kids and I took another group . . . Everybody we spoke to was so polite — to be honest, not fully what I was expecting. I would say about 10 to 20 per cent of the people we asked wanted to fill out cards. By the end of the day, people were bringing their friends to us and saying, ‘Here are the people I was telling you about.’ We filled out the cards, took the contact information and then, after three or four hours, we returned to school.”
his time, the students collected more than 100 Christmas cards. There was a problem, though. Half the cards had no addresses. The card writers had no idea where in Canada their families were living now or they had been out of touch for so long they couldn’t provide an exact street or house number.
This story, and the cards’ journeys, could have ended there. But a small group of students, and Kristi, decided that it was now their job to find those families any way they could. They searched the Internet.
They pored over directories.
And they did what every good journalist does when trying to find someone: They started making phone calls. Not one or two phone calls. Not a couple of dozen. They made hundreds and hundreds of phone calls. They made them to just about anywhere in Canada a name led them. The students and Kristi stayed after school and phoned for hours. They phoned towns in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
They would have nothing but a surname and a town to work with and they would phone every person with the same surname in that town. They would leave messages. They would call a second time.
To find the family of just one man, they made 300 phone calls. They still haven’t found the family.
Kristi was amazed at the number of return phone calls they got at the school from people with whom the students had left messages. Even if they weren’t the person the students were looking for, those people would call back and try to help out. They might tell them they knew the person they were looking for or that they knew someone who might know where that person was.
“I dread seeing next month’s phone bill,” Kristi said. “But the principal has been great about this, and she said that it didn’t matter what the phone bill was, that we’ll raise the money somehow because we were doing it for the right reasons.” Both the principal and vice-principal, Kristi said, had participated in the program, including doing 5:45 a.m. shifts serving breakfasts at the local shelter.
Kristi’s favourite story about the phone campaign concerns Dini Stamatopulos, a Grade 11 student, and Alfred Paul, one of the people who had made out a card.
He had addressed it to “Minnie Paul” with an address of Selkirk, Man. Without an exact address, Dini started phoning every “Paul” in Selkirk. There were about a dozen. At one number, she got an elderly lady who, when Dini asked if she were Minnie Paul, answered, “There’s no Vern here.” The woman had a hearing problem. But something about her made Dini think twice and she flagged the number to call back the next night. She did, and this time, Dini shouted at the top of her voice, “IS THIS MINNIE PAUL?”
“I felt pretty disrespectful shouting at her like that,” Dini said, “and people were looking at me pretty strangely. But she was 94 and partially deaf.” But the elderly woman said yes, she was Minnie Paul, and Dini, still shouting at the top of her voice, explained who she was and why she was calling and that Alfred wanted to get in touch with her. At this time, Dini had no idea how Alfred and Minnie were related, but upon hearing Alfred’s name, Minnie said:
“Oh, Alfred! Gwen is looking for him!”
Dini did not know who Gwen was, either, but Minnie gave Dini Gwen’s phone number in Selkirk. Unfortunately, Minnie gave Dini the wrong number, so she had to phone Minnie back later in the day, and at the top of her voice again, explain who she was and why she was calling, and this time Minnie gave her the right number. Dini phoned Gwen and left a message.
The next day at school, the school receptionist told Kristi that a woman named Gwen from Selkirk, Man., had left three frantic phone messages to please call her back. Kristi did. She got a busy signal. At that very moment, Dini wandered into Kristi’s office to see if there had been any progress contacting Gwen, and while she was there, the phone rang. It was Gwen phoning from Selkirk. Gwen was Alfred’s sister, she told Kristi and Dini, and Minnie was Alfred’s mother.
It was Alfred’s habit to contact the family at least once a year, she said, usually during the Christmas season, and Gwen, who was often out on the coast for work, would always try to get in touch with him during her trips. But this year, she said, he hadn’t contacted them and he wasn’t at the shelter where he usually was, and she and Minnie had feared the worst.
And then Gwen told Kristi and Dini something that, beyond their acts of kindness and the good feelings those acts had produced, brought back into focus the terrible reality of what they were dealing with.
“She told us,” Kristi said, “that Minnie’s husband had died two or three years ago and Minnie had told her she had never cried about him since that time because she knew he had lived a good life, but she always cried about Alfred because she never knew where he was or if he was safe.”