They're not raising awareness, they're taking action.
Vancouver high school students Janelle Tam and Kaitlyn Liu have turned their sense of hopelessness into a youth-led project that alleviates emotional isolation in unhoused individuals, breaks down stigmas and encourages empathy in students through workshops and card-making
Project Empathic, currently made up of 15 high school students, started in the fall of 2021 and has since worked with around 500 students and distributed over 500 student-made cards to homeless shelters.
"Homelessness is a very multifaceted issue. And there's a lot of different factors at play," says Ethan Yang, the Public Relations officer for the group, explaining the significance of card-making activities. "The physical needs are typically addressed, according to the homeless shelter workers that we talked to, but it's often the emotional need that goes unaddressed."
Encouraging empathy and breaking down stigmas is another component of Project Empathic's workshops, for which the group creates lesson materials from first-hand conversations.
"We first interview and talk to a lot of individuals with lived experience, people who are more knowledgeable than us and who can speak to what the experience actually entails. We ask them specific questions related to what we want to talk about. For instance, if [the topic is] origins of homelessness, we ask them what have been their experiences or their knowledge in this area," explains Tam. Those findings are then condensed into a lesson.
Lessons are followed by activities to help kids understand the topic with empathy. "For the kids to build empathy, we go through an exercise where they pretend that they're alone for one night and the only thing in their hands is a packet of crackers and $20. They have to figure out what they can do [in] that situation [and] what some challenges [they'll] face," adds Tam.
Feedback from homeless shelters and teachers shows that the group has had a positive impact on unhoused individuals and students alike.
Shelters have said that the cards have significantly improved the emotional well-being of those using the facilitie, while teachers observed positive behaviours in students. "[The teachers] talked about the kids becoming increasingly emotionally connected to the topics of homelessness and empathy. After each workshop, we asked [students] to fill in a few worksheets describing what they've learned. From there, the students have brainstormed over 50 solutions to homelessness," says Tam.
But Project Empathic is on a bigger mission. "I think most [people] already know about homelessness. So there's really no point in raising awareness," says Yang.
"What we do want to do at Project Empathic is for youth to take the lead in starting a conversation about homelessness and what we can do as a society about homelessness, what governments can do about homelessness," he adds, emphasizing the importance of taking individual action.
The group has big plans for what's to come, with new workshops and more volunteers to help Project Empathic expand past elementary schools into childcare centres, after-school clubs and in more secondary schools.