Friday, October 23, 2009

It's community involvement that sets Project Connect apart

For the past two years, I’ve had the honour of organizing the Project Connect service fair for the street community, put on by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
This year, we saw at least 700 people through the door for the event at Our Place drop-in last Wednesday. They came for help: a new birth certificate, care for their broken and battered feet, a haircut, vet care, a backpack full of useful stuff They also came for food, eating a whopping 2,100 hamburgers and 1,000 hot dogs by day’s end.
I don’t know whether to be delighted or heartsick that the number of people at the event was up by more than 200 this year, or that we served twice as many burgers and dogs. Sure, it’s great to draw a crowd, but I dream of the day when an event for people living in profound poverty fails to attract anybody.
If you’ve done any event-planning, you’ll know it’s a crazy-making activity with a million details to attend to. But when it all comes together, it’s a whole lot of fun, especially when the event is Project Connect. What sets it apart is that it really is a community-wide effort - one that depends on hundreds of people in our region stepping up to make a difference.
Consider, for instance, what it took to be able to hand out 700 backpacks last week.
First, it took the efforts of leadership students at seven local secondary schools to help us hustle up some of those packs - 250 all told. But we needed many more than that, and couldn’t have done it without a generous cash donation from a local businessman and a sweet deal on back-to-school packs offered to us by Wal-Mart and Real Canadian Superstore.
Then we needed things to put in those packs. We wanted to put a dozen or so items in each pack: a new pair of socks, gloves, toque, scarf, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, and other essentials. But that meant collecting almost 9,000 individual items.
For that, we turned to the community. And people really came through.
The Church of the Nazarene bought us 500 pair of men’s gloves. Lambrick Park Church’s “The Place” congregation rustled up 400 toques and 200 scarves. St. Philip’s Anglican Church bought 400 emergency blankets. UM Marketing donated 200 deodorants, 800 razors, and 600 packages of tampons. Save On Foods, Safeway, Thrifty Foods, Lifestyle Market and Costco loaded us up with food.
Workplace donation drives at Telus, Queen Alexandra Society, Victoria Foundation, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, Royal Bank Oak Bay and Shaw Cable brought us box after box of the kinds of things we needed. So did you - for four days straight in late September and again in early October, members of the public poured into Our Place with armloads of donations for Project Connect.
That all of the above happened was largely due to the efforts of five amazing volunteers I’d gathered around me to help organize the event. My deepest thanks to Gloria Hoeppner, Ruth Simkin, Deb Nilsen, Jill Martin-Bates and Willie Waddell - women who I’ve come to count on whenever the occasion calls for a crack team of volunteers.
The packs wouldn’t have been packed without them. Some 10,000 donated items would have gone unsorted. These women’s vehicles, husbands, living rooms, charge cards, friends and neighbours were all conscripted to the cause, as were mine. But hey, we got things done.
As for Our Place, which hosted Project Connect this year - well, I can’t say enough good things about those guys. Everybody on staff was unfailingly helpful and patient with us. I don’t know where we would have stored our overflowing bounty of pack items, let alone physically done the packing, were it not for Our Place making room for us every step of the way.
What was particularly nice was that anytime someone from our group arrived at the drop-in with the latest load of big heavy things needing to be carried in, at least four or five of the men who come to Our Place would immediately step forward with offers to help. Is there another place in the city where you can count on such gentlemanly behaviour?
And this long list was just what it took to get the packs together. Multiply the effort tenfold for all the volunteers who turned out that day, all the service providers who were there, all the work Gord Fry and the Capital Lions Club put in to help us feed such a big crowd, all the media support for getting the word out.
It was a remarkable community achievement. Thank you.

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