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Understanding is key to compassion for homeless, say Charles Best students

A group of Dr. Charles Best secondary school students has a resolution they want Tri-City residents to adopt for 2011.

A group of Dr. Charles Best secondary school students has a resolution they want Tri-City residents to adopt for 2011. It's called compassion and it's something they hope people will share when they meet panhandlers and homeless people in their community.

Compassion is something these students, members of Kristi Blakeway's Best Buddies program, have learned over the last two winters making and serving food at temporary shelters in the Tri-Cities.

"If people would try to understand that it's not always their fault that they're homeless," suggested Zoya Jiwa, a Grade 11 student at Best.

Last week, a dozen students made banana bread, cupcakes, meat loaf and stew with supplies they bought from hosting babysitting nights for local families. They planned on serving the food to homeless people at Coquitlam Alliance Church the next night.

In addition to working from 8:30 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday nights in January, they also take turns working 5:30-to-7:30 a.m. shifts on Fridays putting away mats and serving breakfast to the dozen or so homeless men and women who arrive in the Hope for Freedom Outreach van each night.

Some students are veterans, since the school also worked the shelter at St. Andrew's Church in Port Moody in November, and some just worked their first shifts this month. All say the experience has been life-changing.

"They're not all addicts," said Armin Rezaiean-Asel, who said the homeless people have horrifying stories to tell and deserve more understanding.

The conversation isn't always one way, Grade 11 student David Jennings said: "You can say, 'Oh, school's hard' and they're interested and they listen... It's not just feed them food and leave. That's what makes the process so memorable."

One homeless man made a particularly strong impression. His name was Irvin Wickens and he was a familiar face around town, even appearing in a video to promote a proposed village of shelters in shipping containers. When he was found dead on a path near the busy intersection of Lougheed Highway and Shaughnessy Street in Port Coquitlam in mid-December,

"It was hard, depressing and shocking," Jennings said.

The students went to Wickens' memorial service and heard he made a difference to many people's lives.

They would like Wickens' death to have even more meaning. They would like to see less stigma towards homeless people and more support for a permanent shelter at 3030 Gordon Ave. on land the city of Coquitlam owns and recently approved for rezoning.

"If people were more compassionate, it would be safer for homeless," Selin Jessa said.

As for themselves, the students say it's no trouble working the morning and night shifts at the shelter. In fact, the shifts fill up as soon as they're posted, even though the students have to get up early or work late, even on a school night.

They just hope they are making a difference and are setting a good example.

Said Rezaiean-Asel: "Even if they're not building a shelter [right away], a general increase in compassion for our citizens would be great."