When I met Cindy five years ago, she hung to a parking meter asking everyone who passed for spare change. In the early days of our friendship, our visits would often end with a shameful but quiet request for a few dollars. Five years in, Cindy no longer asks for money. Instead, our relationship has become one of mutual respect and Cindy’s purpose has shifted. Today, our friendship took a new twist, as Cindy did not want to be the recipient of handouts – she wanted to join me and make a difference giving to others.
Cindy lives in a shelter on Hastings Street in a single resident occupancy (SRO) building. Her living space is smaller than most people’s bathrooms but it’s enough for Cindy to have a place to sleep and a wall for family photos. She is beginning to struggle with mobility and walks with a cane to support her ailing body. While her bones may be weaker than when we first met, her smile is bigger and overall she looks healthier (as shown below). She still fights her battle with addiction though her drug use is minimal compared to her daily habit of the past. She is in a long term relationship with her boyfriend and has a good connection to her daughter Paige who phones regularly after we introduced them to one another in 2014.
Cindy in 2014 when we let her know we had found her daughter Paige, who’s she had given up for adoption 27 years prior.
(Cindy, Ava and me reaching out to others on Hastings Street, April 2019)
Cindy continues to be my inspiration and my motivation to go Beyond HELLO. She has taught me about courage, resilience and inner beauty. She knows how to connect with people and she engages in authentic, genuine and meaningful conversation. As Ava, grade 12 THSS student remarked, “That is one of the most meaningful conversations I have had in a long time.”
Ava and I headed to the streets early this morning not knowing what to expect on a rainy morning following Easter Sunday. The streets were strangely quiet with only a few people scattered in doorways or seeking shelter under tarps or umbrellas. Ava has a natural gift for connecting and within minutes, women on the streets trusted Ava and opened up when she offered them bags of make-up. We met Cindy outside her shelter and made our way down Hastings to our favourite diner, Save-On-Meats.
As we walked, Cindy commented how nice it was for us to help people and how she would like to do the same. We gave Cindy some bags of make-up and within seconds she was calling women by name as we passed, offering up nail polish in their favourite colours.
When we sat down to lunch, Cindy and I reflected on the past five years. She was eager to ask about my boys, and how my life is going. Cindy always likes to ask which connection story is my favourite from all the people I have met on the Downtown Eastside. She beamed with pride when I told her that her story is my favourite. Together we watched a video clip of Cindy speaking on the news and she was once again overwhelmed to remember that she makes a difference.
Cindy showed a genuine interest in Ava and asked questions about her upcoming graduation and her acceptance to Emily Carr University. Together they looked at photos and discussed Indigenous art. Cindy showed Ava her dreamcatcher earrings and Ava showed Cindy a pair of beautifully crafted earrings that she will wear at graduation. Cindy spoke about the shame she feels dropping out of school at age 14. I reminded her that when we met she was reading War and Peace on a cold side-walk, and her lack of a diploma certainly doesn’t measure her true intelligence. Cindy was impressed to learn that Ava has just written her first children’s book, It’s Time to Go, where a butterfly guides a little boy in his journey seeking asylum in a new country. https://www.blurb.com/b/9317788-it-s-time-to-go.
As we chatted over breakfast sandwiches, I offered Cindy a meal token for Save-On-Meats so she could return at a future time and enjoy another meal. She accepted. I offered a second one, but she asked me to keep it for someone who needed it more. As our meal ended, we headed outside to walk back towards Cindy’s shelter. A few steps in, a man struggled with his umbrella and searched the ground for cigarette butts. Cindy approached, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked if he would like her token for a free meal. He gratefully accepted and asked if he could buy a cigarette. Cindy refused his money but reached into her purse and gave him a cigarette without charge. No longer one for handouts, Cindy smiled ear to ear helping someone who needed it just a little more than she did.
With some hugs and some laughs, we said goodbye to Cindy. Ava and I headed to the car while Cindy headed up Hastings, handing out nail polish to those in need of a friendly smile and a splash of colour on an otherwise bleak Vancouver day.