Why is it that some people are able to face challenges head on while others fade away to the outskirts of society? Our stories make us or break us. As an educator, I see the stories within our students and often wonder long past graduation who will rise and who will fall.
Despite our different paths, we are all united by a simple need to belong. For some of us, that comes easier than for others.
I headed to the Downtown Eastside (DTES) today with the simple hope of hearing someone’s story. Mya, now in grade eight, has been joining me for three years, inviting people living on the streets to join us for lunch and share their story. We headed downtown with no set plan – just a wish that the right people would cross our path.
COVID closures have made Beyond Hello more difficult. Our most marginalized citizens have faced significant hurdles during the pandemic with a significant reduction in services. Diners that struggled to survive in the impoverished neighbourhood are now boarded up. The vaccine passport rules have prevented an underserved community from dining out as many people living on the streets do not have ID or cell phones needed for proof of vaccination. This makes it much more difficult to invite people on Hastings Street to lunch.
Mya and I decided to walk away from Vancouver’s poorest street and head towards the Tim Hortons at Pender and Abbott. We decided we would buy some gift cards to hand out or pay for someone in need. As we hovered under the awning to escape the rain, we noticed Steven crossing the street. Despite his ripped clothes and dishevelled look, his energy was light. As he approached the Tim Hortons, we said hello.
Conversation came easy as we joined the Tim Hortons line. Within seconds we had exchanged names and formed a new friendship. Steven came to Vancouver 20 years ago after growing up in Hamilton, Ontario. When we asked why he choose Vancouver he replied simply, “I had nowhere else to go.” Suspecting we were tourists, Steven recommended we visit Stanley Park or Second Beach. We explained we lived in the suburbs but had driven to Vancouver to spend some time in the DTES helping others in need. We asked if we could pay for his meal. With much appreciation, Steven asked for a French Vanilla coffee – pointing out it’s his favourite because you don’t have to ask for sugar as it’s already sweet. He also asked for a Boston Cream donut. This led to a friendly debate as to whether donuts should be stuffed. (My vote is a hard no.)
As we ordered our drinks and donuts I noticed Steven stepping up to another cashier. I stepped over to confirm he knew we had ordered for him. “Yes – but now I am able to help someone too so I’m ordering for a friend in my shelter.”
With his friend’s melting ice-cap in hand, Steven didn’t have a lot of time to visit, but he stayed with us and chatted as we waited for the food. He found it quite entertaining that I had been to a Canucks game last week but had no idea who they played. (I explained I like watching the crowd more than the game). He spoke about the new Batman movie that he hoped he could afford to see. He offered suggestions of where we should head next, grateful to be our tour guide. We snapped a photo together, glad to be friends, and said goodbye. With a bounce in his step, he headed back to his shelter. Although much of his story remained untold, there was no doubt it has been plagued by trauma.
As the rain was not easing up, Mya and I decided to head back to the car. We left Tim Horton’s with gift cards in hand so we could help others along the way. When we reached Pender and Homer, we once again found shelter under an overhang. We paused to scan the neighbourhood and determine how to distribute gift cards. We handed one to a nearby senior, slouched in his wheelchair struggling to stay warm.
Just as we were about to head to the car, a well-dressed man, walking with a sense of purpose smiled and said hello. We smiled back as he asked “Do you remember me?” As he stepped closer, he offered – “It’s Johnny”.
My heart exploded as I shouted “Johnny Jover!” I always wonder where my students will end up, and running into them years after graduation brings joy. I explained to Mya that Johnny was one of my all-time favourite students.
Johnny was a student of mine during my very first year of teaching – way back in 1999. He was one of nineteen boys in a class of twenty-two students. The class had been formed when the school administrators went to the overcrowded math classes and asked who would rather have CAPP-9 in semester one. (CAPP stood for career and personal planning and was basically a combination of sex-ed and resume writing – quite the class to teach to a room of 14 year old boys). Johnny quickly emerged as the class clown – always late and full of mischievous energy. One afternoon I arrived to find the class in hysterics. Johnny had arrived early that day and convinced every student to lend him their jacket. Dressed like an abominable snowman with 20+ jackets, he had fallen to the ground and was rolling under the desks. His mother and I called each other frequently as his antics continued, and she eventually threatened to come to school in her pajamas to embarrass him and get him to behave. Despite his unwillingness to follow any directions, he remained one of my favourite students and in 2003 when Shawn and I were married, we invited Johnny and a few others to attend our wedding and help serve at our reception. After graduation we lost touch.
As we caught up on the street corner, I asked Johnny what he was up to. He said he was just on his way to church, and that he’s been keeping busy with some creative projects. He spoke of his brother and mom, and reminisced about a bet I had made with him in grade nine offering to pay him $100 if he grew to 6 ft (he was sure he would.. I was sure he wouldn’t 😊). He let me know he now has a 17 year old half-brother who did surpass six feet. He then mentioned he’s been busy as he also has his own clothing line sold at Nordstroms and Simons! He has channeled his creative energy and mischiveous spirit into his own brand – Six Week Residency. I couldn’t be more proud.
His website https://www.sixweekresidency.com/pages/about reads:
GROWING UP, I WAS RAISED IN A BROKEN BUT LOVING AND HUMBLE HOME—ROUGH PART OF TOWN WHERE FRIENDS WERE TAKEN FROM ME AND LOVERS LEFT.
MY REALITY TAUGHT ME TO DO THINGS ON MY OWN TERMS WITHOUT THE NEED FOR APPROVAL FROM ANYONE BUT MYSELF. BECAUSE OF THIS, I’VE BEEN HEAVILY STEREOTYPED AND JUDGED.
SIX WEEK RESIDENCY IS FOR ANYONE THAT WAS TOLD THEIR DREAMS COULDN’T BE REALITY—THAT THEY SHOULD FALL IN LINE AND FOLLOW THE MOLD. IT’S FOR THOSE THAT WANT TO STAND UP AND SAY FUCK IT. IT’S FOR EVERYONE THAT SEES THE VALUE OF GLAMOUR AND LUXURY BUT WANTS TO BE PART OF IT ON THEIR OWN TERMS.
SIX WEEK RESIDENCY IS A BRAND THAT EMBODIES A MODERN IDEA OF LUXURY AND FOCUSES ITS NARRATIVE THROUGH STORYTELLING, THE NIGHT TERRORS, AND ALL THE CHAOS WITHIN CREATION. THIS BRAND IS ABOUT GIVING BACK TO THE PEOPLE WHO FOUGHT AS I DID, WHO WERE RELENTLESS, AGAINST ALL ODDS, AND DIDN’T QUIT.
HAVE NO SHAME IN WHO YOU ARE. THIS BRAND IS FOR US.
It’s amazing how adversity forces some into the shadows, while inspiring others to step into their light. Cheers to the creatives who remind us success is much more than following the rules and colouring within the lines!