Laying down the blanket of hope

Richmond students igniting warmth towards the homeless community

Can you feel the warmth?

Fueled by witnessing first-hand the plight of the homeless community, a small, but dedicated and socially conscious, group of Richmond grads is hoping to heat up awareness within people’s hearts and minds.

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The eight-strong crew — the majority of whom are Steveston-London alumni — are the driving force behind Ignite the Warmth, a now three-year-old endeavour, armed with a mission to combat ignorance of the homeless on three fronts: facilitate, educate and communicate.

At the team’s core is its desire to help other groups help the homeless; in particular to guide them through the channels required to set up events, such as blanket drives, a popular tool used in the colder months to bring comfort to the people living rough.

It’s a tactic that has proved very successful over the years since Ignite the Warmth co-founder Precilia Kong first had her eyes opened to the heartbreak on the streets while running the group’s own blanket drive at Steveston-London.

“We’ve helped many school groups, some local hockey teams and church groups set up their own drives,” said Kong, who’s now in her third year at UBC, majoring in integrated sciences, combining the disciplines of neuroscience and foundations of human health.

“The majority of the groups are from Richmond, but this year, we’re hoping to branch it out to the UBC community.

“We’ve created a package where we take these groups through the steps. We did this three years ago while at Steveston-London and we simply wanted to help others.

“Every year, we ask the local community around the end of November...to participate through either running their own blanket drives, within their various groups, or donate any blankets, clothes, sheets, socks, etc., that they have to the cause.

“We are hoping to get as many high schools, churches, community groups, elementary schools, thrift stores, and university clubs involved as possible to make this the biggest and best one yet.”

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Five of the eight-strong Ignite the Warmth team, from left, Davis Wu, Stephanie Lee, Pricilia Kong, Joanne Li and Tian Xing Li. - submitted

The main thing for Kong, however, is to generate a more acute awareness of the homeless community, “to evoke a change of mentality and to urge people to look beyond the surface.

“Each of these (homeless) people have a story and we are asking people not to judge; it could happen to any one of us, given the right set of circumstances.”

Despite, while growing up, being shown the deprivation on the streets every Christmas by her mom – who faced some hardships of her own after emigrating to Canada from Portugal as a teenager –Kong admitted to developing a fear of that community and then, subsequently, feeling guilty about often labelling them as “drug addicts,” and “mentally crazy.”

“…perhaps it was a lack of education or fear of what I (could not) relate to,” added Kong of the spark which lit the fire under the Ignite the Warmth initiative.

“…enough was enough, I decided to stop my personal ignorance and take the initiative to understand what lies beneath the surface.”

Three years on, as well as helping out the homeless with comforting items, Kong and the Ignite the Warmth team have spent countless hours talking to the Downtown Eastside (DTE) community and listening to their personal stories.

On the back of those often intimate interactions, they have created a series of raw, largely unedited videos, telling the individual stories in a bold bid to tackle head-on the stigma they feel creates an invisible barrier between people’s ignorance and understanding of the homeless community.

And that’s where the education and communication components of Ignite the Warmth kicks in.

“We’re working with the school district in Richmond right now; hoping to get into schools; maybe social justice classes; educating students on the experiences we’ve had while working with homeless people in the Downtown Eastside,” explained Kong.

“We’re also using social media, such as Facebook, our website and YouTube, to communicate our message (with the videos) and perhaps change people’s mentality towards the homeless.

“What we mean by this is that as busy people, we forget that everyone has a backstory. The majority of the time, these individuals are willing to share it with us if we only stop and ask.”

Stigma and prejudice, added Kong, is “heavily created due to us making blind assumptions about an individual, without taking the initiative to actually get to know them and create an educated opinion about them. “Rather, we prefer to perceive them by their looks, race, ethnicity, culture, education, or their socioeconomic status.

“By emphasizing the importance of not judging a book by its cover, we hope we will teach the general public to perceive these individuals in an untainted lens. If we all stop judging each other, the world would be a better place.”

Ignite the Warmth’s blanket drive runs Nov. 21 to Dec. 16 and is on the lookout for a collection base. Anyone interested in helping, donating or needing help to set up their own drive, should go online to IgniteTheWarmth.com.

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