Flora Xiao Meng Zhu, 4th year, Dr. Peter Centre for HIV and AIDS (Trek)
“Thank you for the bird.”
I looked up from behind the white counter from where I stood; it took me a second to realize he was talking about the roast chicken leg we served for lunch. “You’re welcome,” I said briefly as I turned around, grabbed two 150mL containers of 2% milk and replaced the ones that the attendees took for lunch. Lined with rows of concentrated juice, milk and dessert, the countertop was more crowded than Metrotown on Boxing Day. And despite our best efforts to maintain a somewhat orderly fashion along the dessert and drinks line, between the bustling attendees and our four hands, we were not successful.
“Can I have a chai tea?”
“Can I have an orange juice?”
“We are out of coffee!”
“Of course,” I said as I pried a bag of chai tea out of its box, pressed the juice dispenser to shoot out orange liquid into a plastic cup and took hold of the now empty 42-cup coffee dispensing urn. “Just one minute, let me just change this” and heaved over a 10lb urn of freshly brewed coffee to the attendees.
Every Sunday for the past five months, I volunteered at the Dr. Peter’s Centre for HIV/AIDS and helped them prepare and serve food to the participants that come by. As a community, the attendees, the volunteers and the workers are the ones who drive me to be excited about this cause. They are the ones that give this program hope and make me feel alive.
No matter rain or shine, I look forward to helping out at the Centre. Although not intellectually stimulating, handing out desserts, lining up drinks and emptying out coffee grinds have become emotionally and spiritually uplifting tasks for me. Personally, there is no singular moment that makes me feel more involved with the Centre because every moment that I am there, I feel like I am contributing to this intricate web of social balance.
There are many misconceptions regarding homelessness, drug abuse and people suffering from HIV/AIDS. There is a belief that the ugliness of these under-privileged individuals’ issues are self-brought and contagious; a fear that the mistakes that these people made will rub off against us if we spend too much time with them. A fear that their bad habits and their lives’ adversities will plague us with the infection of misfortune, and a fear that their unpleasantness will destroy our pleasantness in the perfect life that we have sculpted for ourselves. When unfortunately, there is a blackout towards the hidden systemic issues within our society. A blanket of secrecy and chasm of issues feed and mask this epidemic and we only graze the surface of it by being afraid.
I used to think I was a big hypocrite. After I finished my shift, on my way to the bus stop, I would see several homeless men asking for change, and more often than not, I would pass them without giving them a second glance. But as my time with the Centre progressed, my attitude towards these men evolved. And now as I pass them on the street, I see them as colourful human beings, full of stories and experiences, and hope to sit down and talk with them one day.
When people think about making the world a better place, often times they don’t think of the small changes they can make in their community. Philanthropic involvement does not necessarily mean something big, sometimes it starts with a small shift in mindset and perspective. Sometimes it is simply seeing a chicken as a bird.
Diane Keyes, 1st year, YWCA Crabtree Corner (Trek)
I still remember the first time East Hastings and I met. It was a classic Vancouver afternoon where you couldn’t make out one cloud from the next – the entire sky was a solid mass of white. I can’t recall where we were going or where we were coming from, but what I did remember was the streets. I was sitting in the car with my mother driving down East Hastings. It was fall and I was probably about nine years old. ‘Roll up your window,’ my mother told me as she locked the doors, ‘and look outside.’ I turned my head to the right. There were throngs of people milling about; several were crossing the street seemingly ignorant of the moving cars and buses, others sat slumped against the walls of the tall buildings, while others still waved their arms wildly in the air, talking loudly. I remember most of them wearing old oversized hooded coats coloured in beige, grey, or black. Now, whether it was just the greyness of the day or the reality I saw before me which made the scene seem so colourless, I do not know. What I do know, though, is the shock, fear, and confusion I felt. ‘This is the kind of life that some people live,’ my mother said to me, ‘it’s very different.’ And so East Hastings was tucked away in the back of my mind and labelled with bright neon signs exclaiming ‘danger – do not enter.’ It was with this memory in mind that I nervously sat on the bus one sunny Saturday morning in early winter headed straight to the heart of the Downtown Eastside. I was on my way to Crabtree Corner.
One of the anthropology courses I’m taking this term is An Introduction to Contemporary Social Problems and looks at the connection between capitalism (or free market society) and addiction. It explains how capitalism, because of the values that it holds of individualism, competition, and exponential growth, undermines some fundamental human psychosocial needs, which include the need for community, sense of belonging, life-purpose, and meaning. The Theory of Dislocation by Bruce K. Alexander outlines this and shows how, when people are unable to meet these needs, they develop addictions which are essentially adaptive substitutes for these needs. Coincidentally, the Vancouver Downtown Eastside stood as a case study for this theory – the neighbourhood where I would complete my TREK placement. Throughout our studies we debunked several myths which cloud the concept of addiction, including the conception that people who are addicted are weak of character and moral and that addiction was their choice.
What was extremely powerful was witnessing how, each time I went down East Hastings after another week of class, something in me had shifted. There was a sense of opening and felt as though I could literally see more, and not only that, but what I saw was colourful. Things are no longer grey, black, and beige, for there is a certain colourfulness that emerges when you finally understand the reason behind why things are the way they are, and there is a beauty to this. This is what my class has given me, and what I realize education is for. Education is so that we may be able to look at world around us and no longer simply see, but understand. To reach this, however, we must go out and meet the world, which is why I believe academic education is not enough on its own, and why programs like TREK are essential.