#25: How Sleeping on the Streets Taught These Students an Unforgettable Lesson About Homelessness (with Alan Barwin)

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In this episode, you’ll hear how sleeping on the streets taught these grade 8 students an unforgettable lesson about homelessness. I interview a passionate middle school teacher to learn how he was able to navigate understandable constraints to implement such a dramatic real-life lesson in empathy and how you can bring elements of his approach you’re your practice. You’ll also hear from three students whose lives were forever changed as a result of their experience. Get ready for your mind to be blown by this assumption-busting episode.

Alan Barwin is a teacher at Central Middle School in Victoria Canada, where he specializes in Grade 8 French Immersion, Media and Social Justice and Outdoor and Environmental Education. Activities like the annual Grade 8 overnight trip to the Juan de Fuca Trail, connecting with the local homeless community, and fundraising and awareness building campaigns for social justice causes are now part of the fabric of his school.

When not teaching, Alan can be found exploring the wilds of Vancouver Island by canoe, kayak and foot, reading and writing, and spending time with his wife, Pam, and their three daughters. For more information visit my website smallactbigimpact.com and search for episode #25.

For more information check out my website [smallactbigimpact.com][1]

[1]: http://smallactbigimpact.com

 

E 37: I Lost My Daughter to Fentanyl

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“I lost my daughter to Fentanyl”

Fernand Magnin of Victoria, Canada lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose in May 2016. Bria Magnin Forster struggled with addiction for more than 10 years, but her death came shortly after she left a rehab program on the lower mainland. Fernand is sharing her story in the hopes of raising awareness about the need for better mental health and addictions supports for individuals who struggle. He is also working hard to dispel some of the myths about homelessness.

I believe a great number of North Americans have a skewed perspective on homelessness:

1) That it’s a choice

2) That it is solely a result of drug abuse

3) It’ll never touch our lives so we shouldn’t care about it.

For more information, check out my website [smallactbigimpact.com][1]
[1]: https://smallactbigimpact.com/

The Unexpected Detour That Landed Me Exactly Where I Was Supposed to Be

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Last week, I experienced an unbelievable moment that will stay in my heart forever.

Dampness permeated the air that morning.  As I hurried out the front door of my house and onto the driveway, I felt the impact of a big, fat raindrop on my forehead. The cold licked at the back of my throat and confirmed the conclusion of summer. I slammed the door to my car just as the clouds cracked open. A barrage of raindrops struck my windshield and roof.

I was all set to do a follow-up lesson for the 21-Day Challenge in my friend’s Grade One class downtown. The traffic from my house to the city centre can be unpredictable at best and excruciatingly slow at worst, so I planned ahead and left with plenty of time.

When I arrived downtown thirty minutes early, I was pleasantly surprised. I had brought a book to read and could have revisited the lesson to pass the time as I had done before previous school visits.

But, for some unexplained reason, I felt compelled that morning to do something different.

Instead of taking the more direct route to school, the one I had taken a million times over, something guided my car to the entrance of nearby Beacon Hill Park.

Crisp autumn leaves swirled, a dancing rainbow against the backdrop of the lifeless cracked pavement. Darkened bodies, shadows, emerged from the dew-covered foliage to my left and right as I continued along the route, to the heart of the park. One man, a statue, perched motionless on a bench gripped his shopping cart, which overflowed with accumulated treasures. My eyes settled on a woman shuffling along the adjacent grassy path, two enormous black garbage bags torn and cobbled together to serve as protection from the rain that had been pelting my car just minutes earlier.

Today, someone needs you.

Before I knew it, I found myself parking at a grocery store nearby. Arriving inside, I raced up and down the aisles, filling my arms with packages of English muffins, a jar of my favourite classic chunky peanut butter, some delicious raspberry jam, a bunch of perfectly-ripe bananas, and a bundle of plastic knives.

Heaving the substantial white bag onto the passenger seat, I hopped into the driver’s side and drove back to the entrance to begin my second tour through Beacon Hill.

The park was eerily deserted, now. Where people had stood just minutes earlier, there was nobody.

“Where could they have gone?” Perplexed, I drove further and further down the street, my eyes scanning for somebody. Anybody.

My face flushed and my stomach did a flip. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous. What was I doing? I didn’t have a plan. Who the heck did I think I was?

Ready to give up, I reached the edge of the park and heard it again:

Someone needs you.

Determined, I double-backed and set off for a yet another loop of the park.

That’s when I saw him.

A navy toque covered his curly sandy blond hair, as he rolled his soggy, limp sleeping bag with meticulous care. Two police officers, having just visited his encampment, were making their way up the crest of a small bluff to complete more wake-up calls.

Where does one move along to? Where does one find belonging here?

Once again, I parked the car and waited for the traffic to clear. I crossed the street. The white grocery bag swayed in my hand as I approached him, my heart pounding out of my chest.

Uncertainty barrelled into my thoughts. How would he react? No matter how disadvantaged we find ourselves, we all seek and deserve to conserve our dignity. My intent was pure, but I was fearful of offending him.

“How are you doing? Would you like something to eat?” I offered, tentatively.

“Please…yes. I am so hungry.” His eyes lingered on the contents in the bag and warmth spread across his face.

Relief washed over me, as I was struck with the realization that there something familiar about him.

I asked if he would be willing to share the food with others who might need it, too. Nodding his head, he stood up and motioned to a nearby escarpment behind us. “I have a few friends up there who would appreciate something to fill their bellies this morning.”

Handing him the bag with smile, I turned in the direction of my car. Just as my fingers gripped the coolness of the door’s handle, it hit me.

Indeed, we had met before.

Years ago, he and I had attended the same classes, in the same high-school.

Handfuls of Hope

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“Why would God make me this way?” he threw his hands up exasperated, standing in the middle of the grocery aisle as she stood beside him.

My 84-year-old friend, Kate, a devout Christian, had spotted Sam immediately upon entering the grocery store that day, hunched over as he squinted at the ingredients on a box of cereal.

A resident in her senior’s complex, he had been struggling with presenting his true identity to the world. Born a female, Sam had recently decided to bravely transition in the last act of his life, through hormone therapy, to the man with whom he had always identified.

Adversity was no stranger to Sam. He struggled daily with depression and anxiety. He could be seen frequently breaking down publically, shouting angrily at passers-by from the steps of his apartment. Other residents in Kate’s complex tended to avoid Sam, unable to grapple with the uncertainty and erratic nature of their interactions.

He was often solitary.

He walked alone.

Shopped alone.

Spent every holiday alone.

Kate was always good to him. She made sure to honour and call him by his chosen name. She always acknowledged him in passing.

This day was a little different.

“Oh, I just can’t today,” she thought initially when she saw him standing there. She was exhausted after a long week of medical appointments and the last thing she wanted to do was navigate unpredictable waters with her neighbour. She began to turn on her heel for the opposite direction, to avoid Sam before he could see her.

But, in that moment, something stopped her.

She knew he needed her today.

So, she angled her cart toward Sam, and made her way over to him, greeting him sincerely with a big smile and a friendly “hello.”

He looked up, surprised, then, upon recognizing Kate, his face broke into a wide grin.

As it turns out, it had been a particularly difficult day for Sam. He had been contemplating his identity, struggling with whom he thought he had to be for the world to accept him, questioning his worthiness and existence.

They stood together, for a long time. She listened. He talked. She validated him as he revealed his fears. He felt safe and heard. Sometimes, that is all we seek.

There were tears and even a hug.

Before he turned to go, Sam stopped her suddenly, grasping her hand, “You know, Kate, I was feeling miserable earlier, but after talking to you, I feel…hopeful.”

My 84-year old friend, leaned in a little closer, placing her freckled hand on his shoulder and whispered gently, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Giving Thanks for An Unexpected Encounter

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“What beautiful blue eyes!” her voice broke through my thoughts as I waited, admittedly impatient for the sign to invite us to cross the busy road. It was the Saturday of a hectic Thanksgiving weekend, we were set to catch the next ferry to our favourite gulf island, and I had just raced into a nearby pharmacy to buy some necessary supplies to ward off the beginnings of flu season, my blue-eyed-one-year-old strapped to my body.

I had noticed her.  A flat brown mop of hair, swaying slightly, speaking to everyone and no one, gaping darkness where teeth once stood, assaulting the big yellow button repeatedly as she urged the lights to change, so she too, could cross the street.

I had noticed her, but I hadn’t really seen her.

Until she spoke to me.

There exists a distance so expansive between truly seeing people, as they intend to be seen, and accepting the representatives they send forth into the world. First impressions seem easier to comprehend. We allow ambivalence to bubble up somewhere deep inside of us, born from the lack empathic connection. Ambivalence often leads to dehumanization. When we dehumanize people, scary things can happen: incidents of road rage, hateful anonymous comments on the internet, violence, and general indifference to human suffering. We tell ourselves the story that we are not responsible for others, that they have made choices to wind up where they are, that we are powerless to create positive change, and we shrug our collective shoulders, overwhelmed by our own lives, and let ourselves off the hook.

It’s easy to become protectionist, to turn away from that we don’t understand, to write people off based on our assumptions of who they are.

But, when we choose to be witness to the humanity in people, to see people’s truth, to will ourselves to see beyond the confines of their label, beautiful moments abound.

I could have ignored the homeless woman, who took a risk to tell ME how lovely my baby was. The woman who had nothing to give, but gifted me her kindness. On a weekend meant for giving thanks for the abundances we enjoy, I could have refused to speak to her out of fear.

But, I didn’t.

I chose to see her humanity. To hear the kindness in her words. To feel her need for genuine human connection.

I turned to her, looked into her eyes, acknowledged and thanked her authentically, as I would a friend. Her eyes widened, then her face broke out into a smile. I asked how her day was going and listened attentively as she told me.

As the sign turned, indicating that it was finally our turn cross the street, I wished her a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving.

“Bless you,” she said and grinned before turning and walking away.

The funny thing is, I felt luckier for having met her.

As I walked toward my vehicle, I wrapped my arms around my baby boy, reminded of how incredibly blessed I am.