These Psychiatric Nursing students created an outreach project that won a United Nations Association in Canada award

By Melissa Nilan, Marketing & Communications

When Psychiatric Nursing student Vanessa Reid came up with the idea to organize donations for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2018, she never expected it to end up gaining the attention of the United Nations two year later.

Last month, the Homeless Outreach Project for Mental Health, affectionately nicknamed HOP, won the John Gibbard Memorial Award from the United Nations Association in Canada Vancouver branch (UNAC-Vancouver). The award is given out annually to a student or group of students committed to creating positive change locally or internationally.

“Being recognized with this award is a reminder to us that what we’re doing is noticed and that it’s important,” says Vanessa. “It has made me feel really motivated to continue promoting change for the homeless community. Despite COVID-19 and the state that the world is in, it’s still important to try to connect with others and give back where we can, in the safest way possible.”

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Collecting necessities

Purchasing supplies for care packages.

The project collects donations of clothing, food and toiletries, as well as funds they use to purchase additional necessities; supplies are then distributed to homeless people in the Downtown Eastside. Since joining forces with Douglas College and the Coquitlam Rotary Club in 2019, they have increased their reach to homeless communities and shelters in the Tri-Cities and Fraser Valley, and have started hosting dinners.

“When we first started, we would reach out to friends and family to collect items. The response was overwhelming. We would get together at my house to make sandwiches and soup and prepare care packages. Then we’d set up outside a lower-income housing building, called Bill Hennessy Place after my grandfather, and hand out the food and care packages,” says Vanessa.

Inspiring future generations

Vanessa’s grandfather, Bill Hennessy, was a WWII veteran. Following the war, he was left partially paralyzed in one leg and had to walk with a cane; he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with addiction. He got help and managed to turn his life around, and then dedicated the rest of his life to helping others facing similar issues.

“He would go up and down the streets of Vancouver talking to the people who were homeless, getting them food, trying to find them shelter for the night. Back then, a lot of them were veterans too. He would take them to AA meetings and help out however he could. His desire to make real change is very inspirational,” says Vanessa.

His work was an inspiration to both his daughter and granddaughter; Vanessa’s mother became a psychiatric nurse, and through her and the stories about her grandfather, Vanessa followed in their footsteps.

“My grandpa used to take my mom along with him – that’s what motived her to go into psychiatric nursing and she motivated me. When I got into the psychiatric nursing program at Douglas, I told my classmates about my grandpa and it sparked the idea to do something similar in honour of him.”

Vanessa chose Douglas for her education because of the Psychiatric Nursing program’s reputation for excellence among its graduates.

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Creating a legacy

Vanessa was joined in her venture by fellow psychiatric nursing students Wenli Huang, Sylvia Ma, Ruth Desterke, Jennifer McLeod, Kenna Balogh, Sarah Cribb, Tamara Bircher, Hailey Walsh, Sahar Salehi, Alaina Stathem, Yuta Bergeron, Heather Marquet, Zulma Garcia, Jenny Adams, Brenna Robert, Hannah Mankwald and Christine Clyne.

Handing out supplies in the DTES

While Vanessa and the other original project members graduate this year, they already have plans in place to pass the reigns of the project on to junior classmates who joined them last year and are eager to continue the work.

“We’re mentoring four students to take over the leadership role. They’ll keep the same values of the project, about homelessness and mental health, trying to reduce that stigma and raise awareness, but we’re going to let them take over and have their own autonomy and continue to evolve the project.”

The success of the project has motivated Vanessa to keep doing more to help others; she plans to start a new project for homelessness and mental health in her professional career with more services and resources than what she was able to provide as a student.

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