Emily Carreiro, who graduated from Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School six years ago, helped start a program at her alma mater making care packages for homeless and vulnerable people who walk through the doors at St. Michael’s Hospital. Photo by Michael Swan

‘Be An Angel’ project offers a little taste of humanity for most vulnerable patients

  • June 1, 2018

Socks, toothpaste, tampons, tissues and a handwritten note from a teenager aren’t likely to rewrite a life story that includes  sleeping in shelters, seeking comfort in opioids and waking up in the emergency room at St. Michael’s Hospital. 

But they still matter. They matter to the homeless patients who receive the items, and to the hospital they rely on.

All of which makes the kindness that inspired three dozen Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School students to put together 814 care packages matter very much indeed.

“Obviously, the problems we deal with can’t be solved with those care packages. There’s a need for a much larger, more systematic response,” said Dr. Stephen Hwang, director of the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto.

But Hwang, one of the world’s leading clinical researchers of homelessness, isn’t dismissing the student effort. He believes the little plastic bags filled with life’s minor necessities that the hospital distributes to its most vulnerable patients are the beginning of something very important in the fight against homelessness.

“It actually strikes a chord in me, because a couple of decades ago I was one of those students. That connection, at a very personal and human level, is the beginning of a more systematic response,” Hwang told The Catholic Register. “It is a really important sentiment and feeling to cultivate because it does bring out the question of ‘what next?’ There needs to be an effort to go beyond charity, to encourage students to think about how they can promote a more just and fair society.”

In fact, that’s exactly the question Marshall McLuhan chaplaincy team leader Linda Izzo laid out for her students at the midtown Toronto school before they started collecting donations and stuffing baggies. The Lenten “Be An Angel” campaign — named after the archangel symbol of St. Michael’s Hospital — began by asking students what Jesus might have been getting at with his mustard seed parable in Matthew 13:31-32.

“One tiny, little seed can grow into something huge. That’s what our acts of kindness are meant to be,” explained Izzo.

The campaign to extend basic kindness to the homeless who turn up in the St. Mike’s emergency ward actually began with one of the high school’s former students. Emily Carreiro, who graduated from Marshall McLuhan six years ago and now works at the hospital, came to Izzo with the idea.

“A seed was planted,” said Izzo. “She’ll admit to you that when she was a student she was not very focused on school, etc. But she always remembered that kindness mattered. Now she’s made it her life, her career path. I’m extremely proud of Emily.”

Linda Izzo care packagesLinda Izzo, Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School chaplaincy team leader. (Photo by Michael Swan)

Carreiro is the administrative assistant to a St. Mike’s doctor, a job that has helped pay her way through a Master of Social Work degree she obtained this spring. In June she will begin her new career with a social work job at the Toronto Local Health Integration Network based in St. Joseph’s Health Centre.

“I definitely get my sense of values and my sense of willingness to help others from the profession I’ve chosen to pursue in the future. I wouldn’t doubt that Catholic school, especially Linda, had a big part to do with it. She was the one who put my career into perspective.”

Carreiro brought a recovering addict she had worked with in her social work program to Marshall McLuhan to give the high schoolers a picture of life on the street through the eyes of someone who has been there. From there, the students decided to solicit donations from surrounding businesses in one of Canada’s richest neighbourhoods. They ended up with 8,704 items stuffed into 814 care packages. The students themselves contributed to the packs with individual, handwritten notes expressing concern and encouragement to the recipient.

notes emily care packages st michael hospitalPhoto by Michael Swan

Each of 814 unique, anonymous notes begins with “Dear You.”

“I want you to know that despite what life may have thrown at you, you will always remain whole in my eyes,” reads one of the notes. “I believe in you and that with this care package you will take care of yourself.”

“In the scope of a Catholic school, it allows them (students) to make the connection with the Christ we serve, who was Himself homeless and poor,” said Izzo. “To understand that whatever we can do, however small, it’s meaningful.”

The care packages for St. Michael’s Hospital are not a sudden departure for students at Marshall McLuhan. The school has had a 20-year relationship with the Good Shepherd Centre, with the kids serving meals and making beds for Toronto’s homeless there at least once a month. Students in the peer ministry program also go out on street patrols, distributing sandwiches and checking in on people living on the street.

The care packages are being distributed mainly through the Rotary Transition Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital. Attached to the emergency department, the centre gives homeless patients 18 hours in a quiet, safe place to sleep, shower, eat and work out what they will do next.

About 200 packages have also been distributed by the FOCUS Team, an outpatient mental health program. Packages have also made their way up to the 15th floor of the hospital where surgery patients who are not poor or homeless, but who may not have family in town to bring them those essential extras, have welcomed the packs.

Hwang himself has had a family member who received a similar care package during a stay in another hospital.

“Even though they weren’t someone who is disadvantaged, it meant a lot to them,” Hwang said. “Although it might be insignificant in a material sense, it (a care package) might send a very meaningful, emotional message to people.”

From a scientific point of view, the problem of homelessness is largely a problem of social and economic isolation, exclusion and alienation. From a medical point of view, the difficulty is that the doctor can’t prescribe a friend, said Hwang.

“Even though we know social inclusion and connectedness is huge, it’s a really important determinant of people’s health, as healthcare providers we rarely think about how we can promote that,” said Hwang. “So many of the root causes and the solutions lie outside of the hospital. But many of the results of those problems end up in people coming to our emergency departments at our hospitals.”

For Carreiro, the natural good will and idealism of students and the wisdom of her old high school teacher were an opening to doing something meaningful in the face of over 5,000 people per night sleeping in Toronto shelters and many more turned away at the door.

“There’s about 1,000 students at the school so I said, ‘Why not connect and do something together and see how that goes,’ ” said Carreiro.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.