Upper Canada College is trying to warm the lives of homeless people through a street outreach program that will hopefully benefit all involved.
“I am developing a relationship with Jay Barton, the first son of former UCC principal Eric Barton,” said Upper School character integrator Craig Parkinson.
“I have met with Jay and we are setting up a drop-in experience at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto for UCC administration and faculty. The drop-in experience will involve collecting a number of required sleeping bags and sharing lunch with homeless people.”
Sanctuary is a Christian charitable organization that offers dignity, support and direction to people who want to reclaim healthy and meaningful lives. Its staff provides food, clothing and basic health care and helps community members access welfare, housing, legal counsel, medical care, counselling, therapy, drug rehabilitation and, perhaps most importantly, simple friendship.
Five Grade 12 students kicked off the program by visiting the 25 Charles St. E. location on Feb. 4 as part of their International Baccalaureate Creativity, Action, Service project. The boys purchased sleeping bags that they took with them and shared lunch with individuals suffering from addiction, mental illness and significant impoverishment through dispossession.
“We purposely did not go to serve the homeless by preparing a meal or dishing one out for them,” said Parkinson. “We wanted to reverse the usual power dynamic by sitting down and sharing a meal with them.
“In this way, we could open a dialogue and begin to share stories and learn from each other. It took tremendous courage for the students to engage in a conversation with people who live on the edges of society, but in doing so I believe each student developed a greater sense of empathy, perspective and humanity.”
Parkinson emphasized that there’s a need to demonstrate that relationships are at the core of community service, not the number of hours that boys dedicate to it to get their diplomas.
“Despite the many advantages we enjoy, we do not need to go save the poor,” said Parkinson. “What we need to do is realize that the poor have something to offer us.
“They can show us, through their own suffering, addictions and poverty, that we too are suffering, addicted and impoverished, albeit in a much more benign way. We are either addicted to praise, status or wealth, or impoverished by a lack of purpose and meaning in our lives. Despite the short time we had, I hope that these students were able to make a connection and discover that we are actually more similar than many of our differences show.”
That goal was achieved, if student Peter Ehvert’s experience is reflective of all those who took part.
“At times our community can be very exclusive and people within that community often struggle to socialize outside of its boundaries,” he said. “Our time at the sanctuary helped us leave the walls of our community and trips like that are the key to creating diverse, healthy relationships.
“We spent around two hours eating and socializing with people who had much different stories to tell than we did, and it was an extremely humbling experience breaking down the power balance and just having an ordinary conversation. I wish I had the opportunity to hear more stories and would definitely do what we did again.”
Ehvert was struck by the high percentage of aboriginal people at the sanctuary and stunned by the beauty of the paintings he saw that were created as part of the sanctuary’s arts program, which also includes a drama element.
“I think that is something that should be revealed to the general public,” he said. “After the visit I gained an appreciation for the complexity of homelessness and of their ability to express their difficulties not always verbally but also artistically.”