To some, the Downtown Eastside (DTES) can seem alienated from the rest of Vancouver. To the members of UBC HOPE, it’s a place with a huge potential for facilitating conversations and human bonding.
I connected with Vivian Tsang, Founder and Director of UBC HOPE, which is a branch of the larger nonprofit organization, The HOPE Initiative Foundation. Club members work to empower individuals from diverse population groups—from graduating high school students to marginalized communities in the DTES.
Currently a 3rd year UBC med student, Vivian was, at the time of our chat, busy rotating through a clerkship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. During her time at UBC, she has received a National Schulich Scholarship, acted as a WE Day ambassador for the Canada150 Celebrations, and was nominated as a Faces of Today Award recipient at the 2019 Student Leadership Conference.
Beyond her work and achievements, Vivian exudes charisma, is well-balanced, and cares deeply about empowering individuals in the community and beyond.
The story of the Humanitarian Organization for Providing Empowerment (HOPE)
As Vivian explains, the acronym summarizes what the club’s about, both “the empowerment piece, and the piece of providing hope not just to students in the club, but also to communities both on and off campus.”
In Grade 10, Vivian founded The HOPE Initiative Foundation, and got it up and running with the support and inspiration from her mentors and peers. “Their path in pioneering their passions gave me the courage to do the same. I always say that I walk on the shoulders of giants.”
Since its high school days, The HOPE Initiative Foundation has grown in membership, and became an AMS club when Vivian was in her undergrad. Today, the team at UBC is made up of many capable directors and lots of passionate student volunteers.
“Our presence has an impact; the fact that we care has an impact.”
Vivian’s objective with HOPE is to take a fresh approach in filling the potential gaps in a community through its diverse initiatives: “None of our programs are perfect. They exist because we see the deficits, and sometimes if we’re lucky, they are things we can currently address in our positions.”
Some of these programs include:
When she transitioned into university, Vivian found it challenging to adjust to the new academic and social environment: it contained “a new community, new peers, new ways of daily life and self-governance.” She also saw that many graduating high school students didn’t know about resources they could have used to prepare for university and thrive when they got there.
And so came the birth of HOPE for Success. This mentorship program pairs up graduating high school students with post-secondary students. Under their mentors’ guidance, these younger students can prepare for university applications and be introduced to potential future career paths.
During the winter months, HOPE members bring supplies to marginalized populations in the DTES, and hold conversations with them over a good sit-down meal. They ask these individuals about their lives and hopes, and what changes and resources they want to see in their community—and also publish an annual photo portfolio that’s shared with the municipal government, MLAs, MPs, and community nonprofits.
“Sitting down and talking with someone who is homeless or vulnerably housed is not something that society promotes,” Vivian acknowledges. “We’re taught from a young age not to talk to strangers. Suddenly, we’re encouraging you to find out about the life of someone you might’ve passed by on the streets. These are not easy conversations—but we choose to dive into the chaos, to learn to be comfortable amidst great discomfort.”
Under the recommendation of and funding from the Clinton Foundation, HOPE introduces junior high school students in Greater Vancouver to different means of preparing financially for post-secondary programs (e.g. university, trade schools, and diploma programs). As well, funded by UBC’s Chapman & Innovation Grant, HOPE holds educational events on women’s health, and runs workshops on menstrual/sexual hygiene in the DTES.
HOPE is also working hard to remove the stigma around people who use drugs. Vivian says: “We are looking for ways to change how people who use drugs are portrayed in the media. For example, we can use images that are more reflective of what the community is like and language that preserves dignity. A lot has changed since the stereotype of dirty needles and urine-filled streets—there are now many supervised consumption sites available and alternate services for the community. Media needs to be reflective of these changes to be accountable to the public.”
UBC HOPE welcomes you
“If you’re not sure how much commitment you can make, just join as a volunteer,” Vivian prefaces. “It’s not really about what position you have, but about having the courage to join something that might be out of your comfort zone.”
“I think a lot of life comes organically,” Vivian muses. “A lot of life is unpredictable. There’s a lot of joy to be had in reflecting on the experiences that come sometimes by accident, sometimes by surprise, ones that come from you realizing, ‘Hey, this is an area that I really care about; I want to create some change here.’”
HOPE is an organization that’s "very conducive to having leaders emerge.” Vivian tells me that there’s no requirement that all of the student leaders who come through HOPE will have found their one passion or calling.
“If they choose to ask good questions, see the value in others, and stay curious about their communities and the deficits within them, then I truly believe that this organization has done its job.”
Drop by an event held by UBC HOPE (website and Facebook) this year—and consider joining the club and working to empower the individuals around you.
Vivian’s motivation for contributing to the world is “always the human connection.” What’s yours?