UBC Okanagan students hope to fulfill Christmas wish for homeless

Eight social work students at UBC Okanagan are striving to fulfill the Christmas wishes of homeless people in Kelowna this holiday season.

Fourth-year social work student Ana Frias first discovered the Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List initiative while surfing the Internet. She thought it sounded like a great program, and with the support of her fellow classmates and instructors in the School of Social Work, has now launched the program in Kelowna.

“We interview individuals from the homeless community and post their personal stories and Christmas wishes on a website,” says Frias, project coordinator. “Then people from the community can read their individual profiles and choose who they want to fulfill a wish for. Not only does it safely connect people with the individual they are helping in a very meaningful way, it works to reduce the stigma that is often associated with homelessness.”

Created in Vancouver in 2005, the Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List project has spread to nearly a dozen communities throughout North America. It is a non-profit, self-funded program run entirely by volunteer efforts, in partnership with the staff at shelters where the program is offered. Last year, more than 2,000 wishes were granted for the homeless.

“In Kelowna, we expect to have about 200 homeless people profiled this year,” says Jody Rud, fourth-year social work student and public relations coordinator for the project. “We know there are a lot of people in the community who want to help, but they don’t know what they can do to make a direct impact. This project gives people the opportunity to learn a little about the person they are granting a Christmas wish for, and spread the spirit of the holiday season to those who may not be touched by it otherwise.”

In previous years, some of the most requested “Christmas wishes” were for small, practical items that make a big difference in the lives of the homeless: warm socks, blankets, winter coats, gloves, phone cards or transit tickets. People can also send letters of encouragement or Christmas cards to show their support.

“Poverty and homelessness is an issue that touches all of us,” says Rud. “As social work students, it was important to us to not only talk and discuss social issues and inequalities, but to initiate change in our own community. The Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List project has gone way beyond a class project for the students involved and taken on a whole new spirit that we hope will continue to grow throughout the community.”

Three Kelowna shelters – Inn from the Cold, the Kelowna Gospel Mission and Ozanam House – have partnered with the students on the project. Currently, volunteers are being trained to interview the participants from the homeless community. Their stories and Christmas wishes should be posted by mid-December. Although the stories are not yet created for the Kelowna website, people can visit the national website at www.homelesspartners.com to read stories from other cities and get a better idea of how the program works.

“Granting the Christmas wish of someone who is deeply affected by poverty in your own community is an easy way to show you care,” says Rud. “The homeless are not nameless. They are our mothers, daughters, fathers and brothers. They have stories. Many have jobs. And showing that you care can be the greatest gift of all.”

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