For the past ten years, I have taken students to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver to help the homeless community. In Maple Ridge, where I live and work, I have not spent as much time getting to know those who live on the streets. I have been hesitant, as homelessness in Maple Ridge has been a hot topic with polarizing opinions that have indicated a divide within our community. I do not claim to be an expert on the types of services necessary or the solution to homelessness, though I do believe that in order to foster a compassionate community that strengthens all citizens, we need to focus on what connects us rather than what sets us apart. When we see similarities, we are able to relate and see the humanity in one another. I believe everyone has a story worth hearing. Through stories, we are able to empathize and understand different perspectives. People living in our parks and alleyways are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters, and each person deserves the opportunity to be seen, heard, and understood.
This spring, I was invited to speak to the Maple Ridge and Haney Rotary groups via Zoom to share the work my students and I have engaged in on Vancouver’s streets. I shared stories about the people we had met and the positive impact they had had on our lives.(as told on my blog www.beyondhello.org) There is wisdom that comes from those who have lost it all. Our students have learned about courage, resilience, and hope while helping others. Near the end of my presentation, the question arose as to why we focussed our efforts in Vancouver when our community also faced a significant need. I mumbled a less than satisfactory answer about logistics and made a personal commitment to find ways for students involved in Beyond Hello to give back locally. To my surprise, one of the participants on our Zoom meeting, Mark Stewart, from the Salvation Army, asked if he could help get Beyond Hello off the ground in Maple Ridge by making a donation to our program. Mark had the idea of choosing a local business to support as well, and generously donated Big Feast gift cards to cover the costs of meals. With gift cards in hand, we were ready to go Beyond Hello in Maple Ridge, inviting people to lunch to learn from their stories and experiences.
As we have all discovered, 2020 seems to be the year to re-imagine even the simplest of tasks. We needed to adapt our format to maintain safety through social distancing. Sophia Scarcella, a recent grad from MRSS, joined me for our first day of Beyond Hello Maple Ridge. Rather than inviting someone to join us at a restaurant, as we typically do, we decided to order takeout so we could remain outdoors. We decided to order a ‘Grown Up Grilled Cheese’ from the menu knowing that most people find comfort in the simplicity of a good grilled cheese sandwich. With lunch in hand, we began to explore Maple Ridge with the hopes of meeting someone for lunch. The 30-degree heat left sidewalks bare so it took more time than we expected to find someone who appeared to be in need of a meal. As we approached Lougheed and 228th Street, we noticed a man sitting alone with his shopping cart, seeking shade beneath the treetops in an empty lot. We walked over and introduced ourselves to Ken.
Ken grew up in Maple Ridge. As we offered the grilled cheese, we asked Ken how his day was going. He spoke with honesty, confirming his life has not been easy. He let us know his day was rather terrible. At age 63, he was sitting alone in a parking lot with all his possessions in a shopping cart. We offered him the grilled cheese sandwich. He smiled, thanked us, and changed his tune. “You know… any day you wake up is actually a good day to be alive.” We smiled and agreed.
We asked Ken how he was holding up in the hot weather. He spoke of his childhood, and the shifting weather patterns we have witnessed over the last few decades. He appreciated the occasional breeze in the air. I asked Ken how he was able to wear multiple layers on such a warm day. He let us know he tries to stay near the trees during the mid-day heat. He beamed with pride as he showcased his Captain America pin. I confessed I knew little about superheroes. As we spoke, we stood 6 ft away, which seemed a little unnatural for a soulful conversation. We asked Ken about COVID-19 and if he knew anyone impacted. He shared that for once, the homeless community have a slight advantage as he is living in fresh, clean air and not around people very often.
Like many of us, COVID-19 has impacted his life. His long time girlfriend spent nineteen years working in a hospice supporting others with end-of-life care. She struggled with her own physical health and feared the impact COVID could potentially have if she was exposed as she already lived with osteoporosis and arthritis. Unfortunately, fear and anxiety got the best of her, and this spring and she took her own life. Her body was not found for five days. Ken and his girlfriend had dated for 14 years. He believes the fear of COVID-19 was a factor in her death.
Ken has not always lived on the streets. For nine years, he lived in subsidized housing. I asked Ken where he gets his meals. He explained that without housing expenses, he is able to collect enough cans and bottles to pay for his food. As we chatted, an old collector car drove by. Ken pointed out the car with admiration. I once again admitted I knew little about the topic. He spoke of the car shows at A&W and explained that ‘car shows are to men, what shopping malls are to women’. In his eyes, it’s a chance to connect with one another, see what each other has purchased, and share ideas on what to buy next. He also suggested the best way for a wife to irritate her husband is to move something in his car. He chuckled and said… “No, no… don’t actually do that…just tell your husband, happy wife, happy life.” I smiled and agreed.
I mentioned to Ken that I am a school principal and that the BC Government had just announced a full-time return for students. Sophia and I had been listening with interest on the radio while waiting for lunch. Ken’s interest peaked and he chuckled a little. “Your life is about to get crazy! You can’t make everyone happy – if it gets to be too much, you are always welcome to come back and chat. It’s quiet here.” I thanked Ken for his offer and smiled at his wisdom.
I told Ken that Sophia and I both like to share our stories in an effort to teach compassion in our schools and our community. I asked if I could share some of his story. He eagerly agreed, sharing that in his younger days, after some bad decisions, some jail time, and rehabilitation, he was invited to speak to a Social Studies class. He loved the opportunity to give back and help others learn from his mistakes so their futures could be brighter than his.
As our conversation drew to a close, one of Ken’s friends arrived and asked for help. He packed up his possessions and wheeled his cart through the hot son, eager to help out and add purpose to his day. As Sophia and I walked away he yelled out to us one more time. “Hey!” We turned back. “God bless you both.”
There is much of Ken’s story that remains untold. I wonder if he has family. I wonder where life went wrong. I wonder about trauma he may have experienced. I did not ask these questions in our first conversation, but I like knowing that I do understand a little more about Ken, and I can greet him by name next time I see him in our community. It took 30 minutes to go Beyond Hello, yet this simple act of kindness made the day a little brighter for all of us.
May we all connect with compassion. Everyone has a story worth hearing.