“Hello, Neighbour”: Kids, Socks, and a Lesson in Kindness

Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside (DTES) is Canada’s poorest postal code. It’s home to some of our most marginalized people – addicts, the homeless, sex workers.

It’s also right next door to where we live, in trendy, upwardly mobile Yaletown, which means that for better or for worse, the people of the DTES are our neighbours.

Heading down to the DTES.

Heading down to the DTES.

So recently, when our friend Cheri approached us to donate some socks for her “Happy Feet” drive for DTES residents, I thought, “Learning opportunity.” Instead of just handing over the socks and going back to our various screens, this time we would go down there ourselves, and let the kids experience first-hand what it means to be a good neighbour.

On Saturday afternoon, we headed over to the Army & Navy store on Cordova, where we bought a whole bunch of warm winter socks. I could almost see the connections starting to click in their minds as they imagined the strangers who would be wearing these the next night.

On Hastings and Carrall, handing out socks.

On Hastings and Carrall, handing out socks.

Home again with our loot, the kids and I sat in the art room with markers and crayons and construction paper, making some brightly coloured “Socks Free” signs to bring along. Naturally, they had a lot of questions about why we were doing this, where we’d be going, and the people we’d be meeting. I explained that these were folks we’d probably seen many times in our rambles in and around the DTES – while walking through Chinatown, having hot chocolate in Railtown, romping in the parks in Crosstown, and taking in the Eastside Culture Crawl in the fall, for example.

Bright and early on Sunday morning, we met Cheri on the corner of Main and Hastings and prepared to set up shop. Our first stop was Pigeon Park, where the weekly resident-run DTES Street Market was taking place. We set up out front and did a brisk trade in warm white socks. Our youngest, Tristan, sat on a newspaper and held the “Socks Free” sign down with his feet.

Our official sign man in action.

Our official sign man in action.

After a while we moved further up Hastings to Columbia. This is arguably the roughest stretch of the DTES, and we were charmed to hear shouts of “Kids on the block!” as we approached, the residents’ way of alerting each other to be on their best behaviour when little ones are present.

It was a chilly day, but the kids were focused and engaged the whole time, handing out socks, chatting and even exchanging a few high-fives.

Later that night, as I tucked in my two eldest, Oliver and Indiana, they deluged me with questions about their day: “How do people get poor?” “How can you tell someone is poor?” “Could we be poor?” “Why don’t they have beds?” and, perhaps most tellingly, “Can we bring pillows and blankets and food next time?”

The kids with their wares.

The kids with their wares.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but this was an excellent way to begin one of the hardest conversations we as parents can have with our kids – about addiction, physical and mental illness, lack of education, discrimination, disconnection from family and friends and social safety nets.

About how it can happen to any of us, and how, in many ways, there is no “us” and no “them.” How we are all so human, and so fragile.

Sowing the seeds of compassion.

Sowing the seeds of compassion.

As I kissed my own little humans goodnight, I told them that because of their help, 115 people had warm feet that night, and that that was a good start.

There will, of course, be many more opportunities for teaching, and for reaching out to our neighbours. For now, though, I know my little tribe has had their eyes opened just a bit more to the world outside their bubble, to the responsibility to help where and when we can, and to a new concept of our little family not as an island unto itself but as part of the much larger tribe simply called humanity.

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Adrian Crook is a father of five living in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. When he's not mobbed by his brood, he runs a successful videogame design consulting business.
  • Daisy Dunham

    Compassion is a beautiful lesson to teach with action and not just in theory. Youre a great father Adrian. Im proud to know you.

    • Aww. Thank you, best ex! :) You’re too kind, Daisy.

  • kmc

    A couple of years ago, we were involved with a donation drive for our refugee center here, and they had a list of needed items. In this particular case, they needed stuff for moms and new babies, because they had an unusually high number of pregnant women and they were expecting to have to provide for quite a lot of babies in the near future. So instead of getting a bunch of one thing, I took my daughter to our big grocery store, and we went down the list and picked one of each thing to put together a sort-of “welcome kit” for a single mom and baby. I read each of the items to her (she was 3.5) and let her pick from the options. She had to think about what someone else who was very different would like, which was a stretch for her at that age, and the whole time, we were talking about what a refugee is and why they need these things and why we should be the ones to help them. It was awesome to see the impact it made on her understanding. She got super excited about taking care of the new baby, making sure it had comfortable, clean clothes to wear, and warm blankets and socks to keep it cozy and healthy, and nice books for the mommy to read to it. It really made her do the work of empathizing (and in joy, not pity, while recognizing that some very sad things happened for them to need that help in the first place), and it got her very excited to be a part of it.