Kristi Blakeway first met Cindy when she was handing out water on the Downtown Eastside.
The current principal of Harry Hooge elementary was walking the sidewalk along Hastings Street in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood as part of a new project, Beyond Hello.
Cindy was going to kill herself. She had planned to jump in front of a city bus, but instead accepted an invitation to lunch by Blakeway.
Over lunch at Save On Meats, Blakeway discovered that Cindy was battling HIV, hepatitis, and a heroin addiction. Her only reason to live would be the hope of once again seeing her daughter.
When Cindy was a teenager in Ontario, she gave up her baby for adoption. It was her biggest regret in life. Now, 25 years later, all she knew was her daughter’s birth date and first name, Paige.
Blakeway took that information and that evening spent hours on Facebook looking at every profile with the first name Paige that lived in Ontario. Finally, she found one that stuck out. The woman was the right age and had not been active on Facebook for a year.
Blakeway found a man on the woman’s friend list that looked responsible and clicked on his profile and found they had a mutual friend in common. That friend was Aaron Robinson, the son of Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson. Blakeway called him up and found out that the first person’s profile she clicked on was a friend of his who was also a friend of Paige.
Within a couple of hours she had Paige on the phone with her.
Paige was also searching for her birth mother. But she had her own struggle with addiction. Blakeway explained to her that her mother had a rough life living on the Downtown Eastside and agreed to reunite the two women.
During this process, Blakeway discovered that as Paige went through recovery, she took solace in a book by Dr. Gabor Mate, called In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The book featured stories from the Downtown Eastside, and one character in particular named Celia had inspired Paige to get clean.
Paige wrote to the Vancouver doctor to thank him for sharing Celia’s story. What Paige did not know was that Mate had been Cindy’s doctor, and Celia’s story was the story of her own mother.
“It’s a pretty crazy story,” said Blakeway, who reunited the mother and daughter in 2014 and has stayed in touch with them since.
Blakeway started helping people on the Downtown Eastside reconnect with their families and friends in 2009 with Project HELLO.
HELLO stands for Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones. At the time, she was working as vice-principal at Dr. Charles Best secondary in Port Coquitlam. The project was simple. Students created blank cards that Blakeway and a team of 10 to 20 students took to the notorious strip for people to fill out. Then in 2013, the project “switched gears a little bit” when she was working at Thomas Haney secondary in Maple Ridge.
“We found that the people writing to their loved ones had quite a story to tell and sometimes a small card wasn’t enough space,” explained Blakeway, who came up with a new idea in 2013.
The new idea was to take a person to lunch and share their story.
“I blog about the experience and the people stories in hopes of helping shift the perception of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside or our local homeless population,” Blakeway said.
She goes to Vancouver whenever she can find time and will reach out to student alumni to see if anyone is interested in joining her. She always finds plenty of volunteers. Some of the students who go have been part of the project since it started and are now in university. Some are high school students that Blakeway keeps in contact with at Thomas Haney or Westview secondary.
Blakeway and a couple of students, as part of the new project, head to the Downtown Eastside and hand out items such as water or gloves and invite a person to lunch.
Or sometimes they take people they’ve already met, like Cindy, for a meal.
“I was actually quite happy last week. I was supposed to meet Cindy for dinner and she canceled on me because she got a job. She’s working now and she was really tired,” said Blakeway.
“That’s okay. It’s a good reason.”
Every year, Thomas Haney secondary sends students to help at Christmas time. This year, for the first time, students will be doing the program in Maple Ridge.
Now Blakeway finds herself as a go-between, not only for people trying to make contact again with lost family and friends, but also for those trying to locate loved ones on the Downtown Eastside.
“Quite a few families have contacted me when someone has died or vice versa if they pass away, sometimes the shelters will contact me and I’ll try and reach the family again,” explained Blakeway, adding that her students even helped plan a funeral service last year for one of the ladies who they worked with on the Downtown Eastside.
Blakeway has also been contacted many times in the last year by family members letting her know that their loved one has died from a fentanyl overdose.
“Quite a few of the people I have blogged about have passed,” she said.
But the sad stories don’t surpass the happy ones like when Blakeway and a student from Thomas Haney spent hours trying to locate a mother in California to tell her that her son was still alive.
“She didn’t realize her son was still alive and the rest of the family thought he had died. But she said she prayed every night,” said Blakeway.
“We phoned her on Christmas day and let her know her son was alive and he had written her a card. So that was pretty amazing,” she said.
Blakeway, who will be the principal at Westview secondary come January, feels that as a society approaching homelessness, often only the basic needs are thought about like clothing, food and shelter.
“We forget about the emotional needs and that we need to feel connected,” said Blakeway.
“We need to feel like we belong before we let ourselves heal.”