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Hope in Shadows calendars create dignified employment in the Downtown Eastside

Hope in Shadows

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“Selling the calendars helps me out, not only financially, but it gives me some sort of security, self-esteem, building myself up again."

They say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The same applies for street calendars – and the man standing on the street corner trying to sell them.

Peter Thompson, a thirty-year resident of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, is no stranger to hard work. Originally from Boston Bar, Peter moved to Vancouver at age twenty with his carpenter’s ticket and desire to build a life for himself on the coast. In 2006, an accident that left Peter with his leg broken in five places brought his three decades as a carpenter to an abrupt halt. For a man used to doing a hard day’s work, his sudden unemployment—both the free time and the significantly reduced income—was a difficult adjustment.

“It was pure luck that I found out about Hope in Shadows,” Peter says. “I just happened to be walking by when the Hope in Shadows people were handing out cameras. I thought it would be fun to take some pictures of my neighbourhood.’”

Unexpectedly, Peter won an honorary prize for one of his photos. “It was the first time I’ve won anything since my elementary school science fair,” he chuckles.

Hope in Shadows is an initiative that to provides low-income residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with training and employment. To kick off the project each year, hundreds of disposable cameras are distributed to local residents, who are encouraged to take photos of their neighbourhood. A jury of artists and photographers select the winning photos, which are featured in an annual calendar that is then sold on the street corners of Vancouver.

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Selling Hope in Shadows calendars was an easy decision for Peter. “Selling the calendars helps me out, not only financially, but it gives me some sort of security, self-esteem, building myself up again. All of us calendar vendors set goals for ourselves; we’re proud of what we’re doing. It’s real work. You have to be out there every day selling.”

Peter can buy a calendar for $10, which he then sells for $20. New vendors receive their first five calendars for free, so they don’t have to have money in their pockets to get started. Last year, Hope in Shadows provided flexible jobs to over 208 people, who sold a total of 13,000 calendars and earned on average $625 for the season.

New vendors are also supported with sales skills and financial training to maximize their opportunity for success. A partnership between Hope in Shadows and Megaphone Magazine, a street publication with a similar mission, provides basic vendor training: sales skills, how to handle money and how to build basic financial self-sufficiency.

“This training has been essential,” says Carolyn Wong, Project Coordinator for Hope in Shadows. “We found that many of our vendors needed either pre-employment or sales training in order to feel comfortable selling the calendars. Our relationship with Vancity has been invaluable in supporting the success of people like Peter.”

In addition to providing Hope in Shadows and Megaphone with $58,000 in grants since 2007 for training, Vancity provides an annual grant that covers part of the costs of the print run. Carolyn attributes some of the project’s success to the increased role Vancity has recently taken on: “In 2009 Vancity became a critical partner to our growth and our success—we received grants and seven branches became calendar depots, making it easier for our vendors to access the calendars close to where they were selling them. Staff volunteered to hand out cameras and provided workshops for our vendors to help them learn money-management skills.”

Carolyn says Peter’s experience is common: “The project creates dignified employment. And it also challenges the stereotypes of the Downtown Eastside community and it’s residents. When residents are given an opportunity to tell their stories—through the photographs and conversations they have selling the calendars—they have the opportunity to effect social change.”

So, how did Peter use the extra income he earned selling those first Hope in Shadows calendars? “First, I bought myself some new warm clothes and shoes. The rest of the money,” he says, “I spent on my family. I paid to bring everyone together for Christmas – even my family who still live in Boston Bar. I bought the dinner for everyone and gifts for all the kids.”