Project HELLO Christmas cards connect lonely Vancouver residents with lost loved ones
Volunteers have sent out hundreds of Christmas cards on behalf of impoverished residents
The Christmas season is often about spending time with family and loved ones, but that can be a difficult task for some residents of Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside.
"I'm missing home. I haven't, in two years, spent Christmas with anybody," says Janet Brown. "I've been by myself. It's very lonely."
But thanks to Kristi Blakeway, principal of Harry Hooge Elementary in Maple Ridge, B.C., Brown now hopes to connect with her family with a Christmas card.
Blakeway runs Beyond HELLO — Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones. She collects Christmas cards made by elementary schoolchildren, then helps high school students send them on behalf of Downtown Eastside residents.
"People are reaching out all around the world, so it's pretty rewarding for us," said Blakeway.
In the seven years the project has been running, she and her volunteers have sent about 500 cards on behalf of others.
'They all have different stories'
The project has been an eye-opener for her student volunteers, who say they get as much out of it as those they help.
"It's made me realize that not everyone here is the same, they all have different stories," said student volunteer Maddie Phare.
The students and Blakeway approach residents on the street and ask them if they would like to send a Christmas card to anyone.
They then try to find that person's address using the internet, phone books and social media, and send the card to them no matter where they may be in the world.
Blakeaway says unfortunately, that's not always possible.
"The hardest part is the families that we don't find," says Blakeway. "Over the seven years, I probably have just over a 100 cards now of families where we haven't reached them."
But Blakeaway says they never throw the cards away. Instead, university students volunteer year-round, continuing to search for the recipients.
'I still love you'
Downtown Eastside resident Ethel Smith hasn't seen her daughter, Wendy, in more than 10 years — since she was in jail.
"For me, [Christmas] is a time of reflecting about things in your past ... and kind of wishing things turned out different," said Smith.
A volunteer talks to Smith and tells her she'll try to find her daughter's address. She then asks what she would like her to write in the card.
"Hello Wendy, this is your crazy mom, and I still love you," says Smith.
With files from Deborah Goble