'Warm Hands, Warm Hearts' charity run helps Edmonton's homeless weather the cold

Three years ago, Jen Hamel was running downtown when she saw a homeless man shivering against the cold, trying to warm his hands against a heat vent.

A chance encounter with a homeless man led to an annual event that helps hundreds stay warm

Jen Hamel, an Edmonton fitness instructor, is the organizer and founder of the Warm Hands, Warm Hearts Community Run. (Jen Hamel/Facebook)

On a frigid November day three years ago, Jen Hamel was running downtown when she saw a homeless man shivering against the cold, trying to warm his hands against a heat vent.

Hamel, training for a marathon at the time, recognized the man. She would often spot him sleeping on a bench outside the Shaw Conference Centre.

He had no mitts.

"It was really sad. No matter what your situation is, we're all people," Hamel said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"We've had rough times, but we're lucky enough to have a warm house, coats, cars — whereas this man had none of that. It just really sparked an interest to help him and others like him." 

The encounter served as an inspiration for the inaugural Warm Hands, Warm Hearts Community Run.

The fourth annual run takes to the streets this Saturday.

'You've inspired me to do this'

During the inaugural run in 2014, Hamel and 10 friends hit the streets, equipped with ziplock bags stuffed with mittens, tuques and chocolate bars. 

The runners handed out the supplies to anyone in need, as they snaked their way through the McCauley neighbourhood. 

Hamel wanted to find the man who had inspired the run so she could thank him, and ensure he had been given a kit of supplies. But he was nowhere to be seen.

Undeterred, Hamel kept searching. 

"Every day, I went running to find him and it took me six days and 65 kilometres before I finally found the man known as Jesse," recalled Hamel, an Edmonton-based fitness instructor.

"I gave him the pack and said, 'You have no idea how much trouble it has been to find you and give you this.' "

Hamel had introduced herself to the man during a chance encounter a few days before the first event, and told him that he had served as the inspiration behind the campaign. 

It was an emotional meeting.

"[I] told him, 'You've inspired me to do this and to help others like yourself.' 

"You could see that he was definitely overwhelmed, a bit emotional and bit stunned that someone would care enough to carry this, and run every day looking for him, and to start the event." 

'Every year, I'm amazed'

From its humble beginnings, the annual charity event has now grown to benefit hundreds of the city's less fortunate.

This year's five-km run departs from the Edmonton Intercultural centre at 9538 107th Ave. Saturday at 10 a.m.

Donations are still being accepted, said Hamel, but the event has sold out with 160 runners registered to hand out 400 backpacks stuffed with clothing, toiletries, gift cards and other essentials.

It's rewarding to see that the event often serves as a wake-up call for those who participate, said Hamel.  

"It feels great, and every year I'm amazed at the people, and their response afterwards.

"It really opens their eyes to what other people have to deal with, and struggles that they have in their life." 

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.