The first time I met Armin Rezaiean-Asel, he was wearing a bright blue t-shirt. On the back of the shirt, there was an acronym: HELLO, that stood for Helping Everyone Locate Loved-Ones. Being a lover of clever combinations of words, I was intrigued.
A conversation later, it became clear that Armin’s Project HELLO is much more than a clever acronym. It is a creative approach to addressing the problems faced on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and one that has proved more than effective over the past year.
Armin is a grade 12 student at Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam, BC. Along with a volunteer group at his school, he became involved in Project HELLO around Christmas time last year, when one of his teachers came up with the idea.
The concept was simple. Instead of simply giving to the homeless on the Downtown Eastside, give them a chance to give back and show their love. It started with offering to help the residents send Christmas cards to loved ones. However, the project was expanding rapidly. As it turned out, many members of the community had lost touch with family members and friends and welcomed this chance to express their love and gratitude. Many people were eager to participate in the project and wrote heartfelt messages in their cards.
“We basically just converse with [the residents] and see if they’re interested.” Said Armin, “A lot of them are not only receptive, but open up while writing the cards…We end up standing there while they’re writing and they’re bawling their eyes out.”
For students like Armin, hearing the stories of the people participating in Project HELLO has been an eye-opening experience. “It’s impacted the way I live and see my daily life in the sense that I definitely don’t take things for granted now. Simple things such as a warm bed at night and family members are things I never even realized before, but are luxuries to others.”
He adds, “In addition to that, it’s definitely increased the level of compassion I have towards others, especially homeless people, because some of the stories I heard from these people were possibly the most shocking stories I’ll ever hear about someone else’s life… ever.”
After such life-altering experiences last Christmas, the students of Project HELLO knew they wanted to continue the project past Christmas. They began Mothersï¿½ Day campaigns and other letter writing campaigns. The culmination of the project was when, in June, they were able to fly one womanï¿½s daughter to Vancouver. Armin was able to witness the reunion, and described it as incredibly moving, and, “the highlight of Project HELLO.”
Looking towards 2010/2011, the students running Project HELLO want to expand and continue to unite the homeless with their lost loved ones. They hope to introduce video messages to allow face-to-face interaction, and to reach out to even more residents of the Downtown Eastside. And although he doesn’t have all his post-secondary plans figured out, Armin says he hopes to stay in Vancouver for university, so that he can continue his involvement with Project HELLO. No matter where he ends up, the boy in the bright blue shirt is going to continue his work helping everyone locate their loved ones.