The drug addict who steals to feed his addiction makes media headlines. The homeless who camp out in city parks evoke community debates. The panhandler who begs for change grasps our attention – at least until the light turns green. But what about the ones we don’t see? In every school, every workplace and every community, there are those that exist under the radar. They are the ones we don’t notice. They are the ones waiting for someone to say, “I see you.”
Today, grade 7 student, Halle, joined me in an effort to go Beyond HELLO and spread compassion throughout Maple Ridge. We began by driving through the downtown core, looking for someone in need who might benefit from a warm meal. We hoped we would get a chance to connect, and hear someone’s story.
COVID-19 has limited our ability to take strangers to lunch. Rather than sitting down at a restaurant, we ordered take-out from Big Feast and circled the community looking for someone who might appreciate a great grilled cheese sandwich.
Halle did a fantastic job scanning sidewalks and noticing footwear, clothing or minor details that may be indicative of someone’s financial need. As we picked up our meals at Big Feast, we noticed a woman walking down a local street with a shopping cart. While she appeared clean and happy, we made note that most people do not remove shopping carts from store lots. We headed to the car and followed in her direction. She had wheeled her cart into an open lot and had paused for a moment. We parked the car, and decided to introduce ourselves.
The woman we met, named Christine, was making her way back to Maple Ridge’s Supportive Housing (modular housing provided by BC Housing to assist the homeless community in Maple Ridge). We offered Christine a grilled cheese sandwich. At first, she eagerly accepted our offer. We explained that our intention was to spread kindness throughout the community and help those in need. Christine paused and changed her mind.
“That’s awesome what you guys are doing. But – you know what? I live in the modular housing, so I’ve been given a lot. I have housing, and I have food, but some people don’t. Can you give the lunch to Julia instead? She needs it more than me.”
We hadn’t noticed Julia in the same empty lot. In fact, we had to ask Christine who she was talking about. Christine pointed across the lot to misplaced concrete barriers. We could see an abandoned cart, but we still couldn’t see anyone else nearby. Christine assured us that if we looked closer, we would find a woman curled up sleeping on the ground next to the cement divider. She continued to thank us and said she wanted to pay it forward by helping someone with more need than herself. Christine headed home and we walked across the lot in search of Julia.
We were steps away before we noticed her body. A mix of grass, weeds and scattered garbage sheltered her tiny frame, asleep on the pavement. We moved closer and spoke her name.
“Hello there – are you Julia? Julia, we have some lunch for you if you are hungry.”
Julia woke from her sleep, looked at us with some bewilderment, and invited us to sit with her. Julia was hungry and politely accepted our lunch. As she wiped the sleep from her eyes, we asked how she was doing, and if there was anything we could do to help her. It was clear Julia had not showered for days, or perhaps weeks. Despite being outdoors, Julia’s body odour was stale and strong. As Halle so intuitively described, Julia looked like a woman without hope.
Julia did not sit up. She remained curled on the ground, and asked if we could find her one more blanket. We agreed that we could. We also offered her a cold drink. I explained that my home was about ten minutes away, but that we could be back in 20 minutes with a blanket and a beverage if she would like to wait for us. It was clear Julia had no intention of going anywhere. She smiled and accepted our offer with a simple “Yes – please.”
I phoned ahead to my husband who graciously took inventory of blankets in our home, deciding which one we needed the least. He found a purple blanket that looked warm. (To be honest, I didn’t even recognize the blanket. A wave of guilt flashed over me recognizing the abundance so many of us live with, in comparison to Julia.)
Halle and I found Julia exactly where we left her. When we returned, Julia shared a little more of her life on the streets. Julia is 40 years old, and has been without shelter for 17 months. She grew up in Maple Ridge, attending Yennadon elementary. Her childhood was not easy and she did not graduate from high school. Although she has many siblings, they have gone their own direction, and Julia does not have any family supports at this time. She explained that she keeps her life quite simple. She bins for empty cans, returns them for the deposit, and buys food for survival. She is a mother to four children. Her grief was evident as she thought about her four kids, all growing up in ministry care. She carries the weight of her past with her.
Julia thanked us for lunch, noting that she feels safer in Maple Ridge than other communities. She spoke of past jobs, and hung onto an ounce of hope that she would once again work in the future. This is not what she imagined her life would look like at age 40. She shared that her birthday was coming up in October. Together we hung on to hope, that 41 would be kinder to Julia than this year has been. As we said goodbye, we asked Julia if she needed anything else. Julia shook her head no, and told us she didn’t need anything else. For the few moments, she was content, just to be seen and accepted. We promised to visit again.
I never would have noticed Julia if Christine had not offered to help. Christine and Julia remind us all to live with our eyes open, in search of those who may otherwise be invisible. As we live through a pandemic where many are isolated, please take time to reach out to others, check-in, and say hello. A simple act of kindness may be all it takes to connect with compassion.