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Meet Project Empathic

By Flapper Press:

Project Empathic is a Canadian-based organization taking on the issue of homelessness in unique and impactful ways. Led by a focused group of high school and university students, they aim to reduce the stigma around homelessness through a series of workshops conducted at elementary schools and through the innovative idea of having those students write cards to unhoused individuals, sharing positive messages of hope and support.


As this impressive and motivated team grows, we met with the leaders behind the project (co-founders Janelle Tam and Kaitlyn Liu, Director of Operations Jake Valinho, and Public Relations Officer Ethan Yang) to learn a little more about them, their journey, and their challenges.

 

FP: Welcome, Project Empathic! We were so happy to learn about the extraordinary work you’re doing. For those new to your project, tell us a little about your organization and its mission.


Janelle: Growing up in Vancouver, we had always known how pressing the issue of homelessness was. However, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, housing instability issues were amplified even further. There was an increasing number of news articles about rising housing costs, tent cities, and inequities on the streets that made homelessness an even more glaring issue. Despite this, global leaders didn’t seem to be taking enough action, and people continued to turn a blind eye to what was happening outside.


We thus created Project Empathic out of this desire to combat apathy. We are an organization that works to spark in our generation kindness, empathy, and a willingness to assist individuals who have fallen through the cracks of society. We aim to build bridges of compassion to propel greater social change.


Jake: For me, having grown up around the Downtown Eastside, I see people often being pushed away despite the problem being solvable (we can see this in other places, too). Unhoused people are hidden from society through anti-homeless architecture, and resources are spent hiding them instead of fixing the problem. Yet, this issue persists so intensely in Vancouver because steps are not taken by people in positions of power to address these concerns. Also, as kids, it’s difficult for us to address the systemic problems that engender homelessness, [but] we can try to deliver empathy for people who society is not built for.


Janelle: We believe that change can only begin when we start caring. Through Project Empathic, we hope to build a community filled with young people who care.


FP: What is the most important thing for people to understand about homelessness?


Jake: It’s not an individual issue—it’s a systemic issue. Often, homelessness stems from one event: the loss of a job, a small family issue, or a small legal issue. Simply put, people often don’t have the support or resources to handle this issue [through] no fault of their own, so it results in the loss of a home or a family, which results in homelessness.


When people think of the problems of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside, they think of drugs or poverty, but it’s not a matter of choice. People need to realize that homelessness stems from one thing leading to another. This is perpetuated by a lack of infrastructure to end this poverty trap. What we need as a society is a system that gives people the resources to break free from the cycle of poverty.


Janelle: It’s also important to note that mass homelessness has not always existed. It was created through a series of historical and governmental actions in the 1980s when Canada and America entered a severe economic recession. Many were left unemployed, and many of these people are still experiencing the repercussions of this today.


If homelessness was created, it means that it can be solved. People are already working to end homelessness in other countries (take Finland, for example) that champion Housing-First policies that put people before their situation. We need to do the same across the world.


From our consultants, we’ve learned that people experiencing homelessness are really simply people without homes who go through a series of life circumstances. It’s so important that we take action to solve this issue at its roots.



FP: Your focus seems to be on tackling the issue on two main fronts: workshops and cards. How did you come up with this two-fold strategy? What is it about these two approaches that you find to be the most effective for your goals?


Ethan: Our main goal as an organization is to instill empathy. This is mainly done through our workshops. By understanding homelessness as an issue, we hope students can translate that knowledge into empathy.


Through knowledge, we also want to empower students to inspire change—card-making is a way for students to express empathy. During our many consultations with shelters, social workers, and unhoused people in BC, all of them expressed that in addition to a lack of resources, people experiencing homelessness also face severe isolation that amplifies their existing challenges.


Through card-making, we hope to empower students to directly lessen that isolation while fostering a sense of community throughout society. Essentially, this two-front strategy allows us to not only educate students about homelessness but inspire action and ensure unhoused people can experience the empathy that we aim to develop.


Jake: A lot of kids also ask after the workshops: What can we do? Our card-making allows elementary school students to personally take action to understand this issue. Even if it’s a small act, collective action makes a difference on a large scale. A lot of people distribute immediate resources, such as food, water, and hygiene products. However, we distribute something that is different and more human. And that’s really special. This lets people experiencing homelessness have that human connection, which is just as important as any other need.


FP: Please walk us through what a typical workshop might be like.


Kaitlyn: We currently run two workshops that discuss the importance of caring about homelessness, one for older students from grades 4–7 and another for younger children from grades 1–3. In our workshops, we start off by defining homelessness with proper terminology, so we can unlearn some of the inherent stigmas that can be carried in our words.



Janelle: We then move into addressing the common stereotypes surrounding homelessness. For the older students, we address and unpack a lot of historical contexts. In comparison, for the younger students, we read them a short story that humanizes the experience of being unhoused.


Kaitlyn: We follow up with activities to develop empathy to put the students in situations where they can learn to empathize with unhoused individuals. My favourite discussion is our “Brainstorm Solutions to Homelessness” conversation that really lets us reframe our perception of homelessness from a massive, inevitable issue, to one that is complex but solvable!


And we end off with a card-making activity and handouts, so that students can continue discussing homelessness outside the classroom—essentially, to allow students to bring home what they learned to their families to facilitate valuable discussions.


Janelle: Our workshops are led by experienced, highly trained workshop facilitators—these volunteers are high school and university students like us, passionate about public speaking, leadership, and advocacy work.


Kaitlyn: The workshops are carefully developed by our senior volunteers who identify and highlight systemic issues surrounding homelessness that align with curricular areas of focus in consultation with academic research and stakeholders in the homelessness crisis. We’re working on a workshop series right now to continue our program!


Janelle: Following our workshops, teachers have reported that their students have become increasingly emotionally connected to homelessness and empathy. In contrast, the students have brainstormed hundreds of potential solutions to homelessness. We’ve reached almost a thousand students in 20 partnering schools across British Columbia. And it’s all so empowering to see how our program is received, to see everyone come together to take action and effect change.



FP: You direct your message to young children, particularly elementary students. Being an organization of younger people yourself, do you feel a particular connection with these students? Do you find they respond better to working with a group somewhat closer in age to themselves?


Kaitlyn: I would say that there is definitely that connection, especially knowing that the students are in a position we were in a few years ago. Essentially, we want to teach the leaders of tomorrow—people who will lead our future—how to unlearn the stigma of homelessness, which is why we choose to direct our message to elementary school students.


Additionally, I think they respond better because we try to cover content that is more relevant and relatable to them.


Janelle: As older students, we also want to pass on the knowledge we’ve gained over the years from our personal experiences and encounters to younger children—knowledge we wished we had at their age.


The students and teachers find it inspiring that we’re a youth-led organization because we’re not too different from the children. We aren’t in positions of authority—we’re just kids who want to instill hope and empathy in the world. I think the students see that. They see that they, too, have the power to take action.


FP: The idea of the cards is so unique and innovative. Why do you think cards, particularly from children, have such a significant impact on unhoused individuals? What do you think the children writing the cards get out of the exchange?


Jake: You can’t buy cards—you have to make cards. It’s a pretty simple idea—empathy is crucial—that we teach people about homelessness to inspire further action.


When a student creates a card, Project Empathic has the infrastructure to ensure people will appreciate their message and kindness. Especially as we had our card distribution in August with other poverty-alleviation initiatives, it definitely makes a difference to have each card directly handed out from a young person to a person in the Downtown Eastside community. It’s all very human.


Kaitlyn: It’s especially significant that these cards come from children who genuinely desire to express their love for humanity. We’ve all experienced this—we can feel distanced from those marginalized in society, such as unhoused people. These kids have a way of bridging that gap and humanizing the marginalized.


Janelle: And from the kids’ perspective, through card-making, they get the sense that they’re taking action, and it’s empowering. They’re learning to care about social issues from a very young age.



Kaitlyn: Following our card distributions, people have come to us to share that the cards helped them heal and that they were so touched that the kids had taken the time to write messages for them. The cards have been met with smiles and warm laughter. When we partnered with a local shelter back in February, one of the program coordinators shared how the cards dispelled the tension in the shelter, leading to evenings, which were serious and silent at first, to be filled with laughter, joy


Our card-making is a way for children to bring happiness into the world, and we can see that from the feedback we’ve received. It’s a small but powerful act of kindness.


FP: You started this journey roughly a year ago, still very much during the pandemic. What were some of the challenges of starting a venture such as this, which requires such personal interaction, during that time?


Ethan: I think our ability to genuinely connect with students through the pandemic was quite limited due to the online format. The pandemic was also a challenging time for us academically, and it was often difficult to run Project Empathic in conjunction with our school schedule. Also, none of us are professionals—before Project Empathic, we didn’t have formal experience in administration, marketing, etc., and the pandemic definitely increased the difficulty of running an organization. However, if there were a silver lining to the pandemic, it certainly gave us numerous opportunities to face challenges; returning in-person definitely seems less daunting now.


Kaitlyn: We also couldn’t distribute cards personally due to ongoing restrictions. But although we couldn’t directly see the impact of our cards on recipients, we heard about their impact through feedback from shelter coordinators! That being said, now that things are returning to normal, we held an in-person card distribution in August this year, where our volunteers could hand out the cards directly, talk with recipients, and see how important their work is.


Fortunately, we’ve maintained all our connections built throughout the pandemic period. We can now return to partner schools and host in-person workshops. Throughout the pandemic to now, our mission has managed to reach teachers and students across BC to spread our message of empathy.


FP: We know how the pandemic affected the majority of people around the world, but we rarely hear how it impacted those living on the streets or in shelters. What were (or are) some of the biggest challenges facing the unhoused throughout the pandemic?


Janelle: During the pandemic, the shelter coordinators we worked with emphasized how shelters didn’t receive more support during the pandemic, even as they had to reduce capacity due to pandemic restrictions. Any challenges unhoused people face are amplified by the experience of homelessness. In addition to existing challenges, there was the added worry of potentially catching a harmful illness and the fact that there was simply less support during the pandemic.


FP: What would you recommend for people who perhaps cannot establish a local workshop but still want to help this worthy cause?


Janelle: There are a lot of individual actions people can take to support this cause. When you hear unkind words or conversations about people experiencing homelessness that perpetuate the stigma, stand up and speak out. You can be the person who says, “That isn’t right”!


It’s also so important that we acknowledge the existence of people experiencing homelessness. If we feel safe, a simple hello, a smile, or a good morning is so important—we’re all human, at the end of the day.


Kaitlyn: We also encourage you to do your own research surrounding this issue. A good place to start would be our website, www.projectempathic.org, where our pages contain helpful resources to learn more about the homelessness crisis.


Janelle: Definitely. And remember to stay well-informed of current events and read both sides of the news. Ensure that you’re observant of what all levels of government (especially municipal and provincial) are doing (and aren’t doing) to address these issues. Stay informed, and when the time comes to vote, support those who believe in what you believe in.


Kaitlyn: If you want to take action directly, you can join us in our mission as a volunteer facilitator for our workshops and work now with students, no matter where you are. You can visit our website for more information: www.projectempathic.org/volunteer.


Ethan: Yes, and one of the main strengths of our organization is that we have a very diverse group of volunteers. We’re able to run workshops across the world. Through the pandemic, we gained lots of experience hosting online workshops—making them meaningful, engaging, and educational, despite the limitations of an online format. If you are a teacher or parent, we encourage you to request a workshop through our website at www.projectempathic.org/request!


FP: What are your plans for this organization for the future?


Ethan: We want to continue expanding and recruiting a larger team of volunteers so that our message may reach more students. We’re a team of 30 right now, and we envision ourselves growing even larger.


Jake: We also want to expand our card distributions by increasing the number of cards we hand out and form valuable partnerships with other organizations to enlist them in our mission.


Janelle: Our ultimate vision for the future is to optimize our system for running our workshops so we can pair our passionate volunteers with enthusiastic classes. Our goal is to eventually expand Project Empathic nationally and reach every child in Canada.


 

At Project Empathic, we feel that while homelessness is not an issue that can easily be addressed, it is one that we can work towards changing. Created by a team of young people empowered to make a difference in the face of rising apathy, we want to bring more attention to this societal issue, eliminating the stigma surrounding homelessness and uncovering eyes to the realities of our world through education.

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