Alley Outreach Project

Naryan Dass
The St. George's Alley Outreach Participants

On Saturday November 15th, as part of The Alley Outreach Project (AOP),  a group of thirty students and staff from St. George’s School travelled to Oppenheimer Park on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. AOP is a very unique opportunity for high school students. It is not often that a school initiative takes students from the comfort and security of their daily lives to the heart of the Downtown Eastside to help those who have fallen on tough times. AOP distributes warm food and clothing to people living on the streets. Dry socks or a fresh pair of mittens may not seem like much to most but to some people on the street it can be the difference between a warm, cozy night and shivering in the cold. Naryan Dass, one of the grade 12 AOP organizers said  “The main [reason I joined AOP] would probably have to be the ability to change people’s days and possibly lives with small gestures such as giving out a piece of clothing or handing out an advocacy brochure.”

This groundbreaking program was founded in 2011 by Mark Lindsay along with a group of St. George’s students. Mark was once a successful business man until he did his first line of oxycontin, a powerful prescription pain killer.  He became addicted to drugs and eventually found himself living on the street. Through much hard work he was able to get off the drugs and rebuild his life, but he never forgot the people and friends from the street. He founded AOP with the goal of helping the homeless while also informing high school student of the dangers associated with drugs.

When Mark started AOP he never thought it would reach the scale that it has today. He said “The depth and sheer scale that AOP has reached since 2011 has been one of the most impressive measurable goals to date. Our program initially started out as very small groups (2-3) roaming a few blocks in the Downtown Eastside giving out water bottles. These events were really just a chance to get out and do some good work…. where as now, I believe the program costs of two primary mandates, first, to educate students on the effects of mental illness and addiction, and the reality that privileged or destitute anyone can make poor life changing decisions, and second, to advocate… advocate for those who have been silenced by mental illness and addiction. I believe AOP is far exceeding it’s initial vision… I could never really have guessed in the beginning that I would meet such amazing individuals who would wholeheartedly push this project forward, for no reward other than the betterment of the beautiful city we live, work and study in… Our mandate is to: educate, advocate & inspire!”

Mark also expanded on what he sees in future for AOP: “AOP is constantly in the process of change. That is one of the most challenging, but also the most exciting things about running a grass roots organization. Everything we do we are creating as we go, and keeping these templates to use in the future. We have our short term and long term goals for the project. With the momentum and interest being generated these days, I see AOP transitioning from a non-profit to fully registered charity early in 2015, allowing us to begin to do long term fundraising for our ultimate 5 year goal of opening out own AOP/St. GEORGE SCHOOL CENTRE FOR MENTAL WELLNESS AND RELAPSE PREVENTION. I also see AOP expanding its family and welcoming in new schools for the second half of the school year and with a little luck have 2-3 schools under the AOP umbrella by spring 2016.”

People travel through this area on a daily basis but rarely do they stop and think about how little difference there is between themselves and the people around them living on the streets. When the AOP outing came to a close Mr. Brian Lee, one of the staff participants from St. George’s, asked the students to reflect on this life changing experience and share how they felt. Jonah Harris (Grade 12) had this to say about the experience: “I have always heard horror stories of downtown Hastings but I have never actually taken the time to go down there and experience it first hand. Today was an eye opening experience for me in a positive way as it showed me how much we have to be grateful for. Something a lot of people don’t know about me is my mom struggled with addiction but when I was younger I never understood the toll it has on someone both mentally and physically. To this day I still don’t completely understand it but today’s experience was a big eye opener to me and I think that was important. Not only did I completely realize the effect it has on a person but I find it incredible that it is only a 15 minute drive from the nicest part of Vancouver to the worst part of British Columbia. Overall this was a spectacular experience and I am looking forward to the next AOP event. Thank you!”

The experience touched the students deeply. Even though these people have nothing, are marginalized by society and would have every right to be resentful of outsiders coming into their community, they were open, friendly, and profoundly grateful for the help these students brought into their lives. Every participant in AOP has experiences that will stay with them for a lifetime. When asked for his most memorable AOP experience, Mark Lindsay replied: “For me the most memorable moment that has happened since founding AOP would be the Party in the Park in June 2014. We served about 1000 free meals… had Oppenheimer park packed, a line up encircling half a city block… it made me stand back and realize we are making a real a impact. Even if just for a day at a time, but also reinforces the need for our vision to be seen through, because there is still so much more that can be done and AOP is devoted to thinking outside the box and continuing to build [the] project through promoting within, and being 100% student and alumni led & driven.”