When Sammy Gold came to Western three years ago, she was struck by the level of homelessness in London.
“There are many people close to campus who are struggling, and I really wanted to help,” she said.
The medical sciences student connected with Purple Hands, a student-run homeless advocacy group. Aptly named, the non-profit organization’s hands-on approach resonated with Gold.
“Volunteering in the community, interacting, connecting and having conversations with people, rather than just giving a donation, not knowing where it goes, really appealed to me,” she said.
Gold’s involvement and passion for the work grew. She now serves as Purple Hands’ president.
Purple Hands was founded in 2018 by Toba Balogun, BMSc’21; Jessica Hu, HBA’21; Sparsh Kohli, BMSc’21; and Jason XI, BMSc’21.
The group’s vision, to “support vulnerable and marginalized persons in London, Ont., one hand at a time,” soon drew close to 50 like-minded students. They also attracted federal funding and partnerships with community service organizations, including Goodwill Industries, The Salvation Army Centre of Hope and the London Homeless Coalition.
To date, the group has engaged more than 1,500 students through its Instagram and Facebook platforms, raising awareness on the issue of homelessness and inspiring action in the London community.
Gold first volunteered as part of Goodwill’s Circles London Program, a mentorship initiative for low-income families. Purple Hands members provide child-minding services at weekly meetings, while parents access programming on personal growth and career development. Connections are made as everyone gathers for a group meal.
“I could see how the children benefited from having someone like an ‘older sibling’ to talk openly with about what was going on in their lives,” Gold said. “The routine of seeing us each week helped them and gave me so much joy as well. It made me want to do more.”
Through compelling social media posts, Purple Hands rallies Western students to contribute to regular resource drives for clothing, toiletry items and hygiene products, which are then distributed to Londoners in need.
Annual events include Hallowe’en for Hunger and the HIIT Halloween workout food drives, and participation in World Hunger Day.
Weeks before the pandemic hit in 2020, the Purple Hands volunteer team set up at the Salvation Army Centre of Hope to hand out more than 500 pieces of winter clothing (donated by Western students and their families) to London’s homeless community.
Volunteers also support weekly meal service programs across the city, staffing kitchens, serving food and chatting with clients.
During the pandemic, Purple Hands mentors provide support virtually, offering free tutoring and workshops.
A large part of Purple Hands’ mandate lies in learning about the realities of poverty and sharing that information with their Western peers.
The Purple Space blog features timely, evidence-based articles written by student volunteers. Topics range from myth-busting truths about homelessness and the importance of education for homeless youth in Ontario, to how COVID-19 affects the homelessness crisis in London.
Humans of London features members of London’s unhoused community sharing their personal experiences across Purple Hands’ social platforms.
“When they tell their story, in their own way, it gives tremendous insight into their daily struggles of poverty,” Gold said.
It also gives those who often feel invisible a chance to be seen.
“Ultimately, they just want someone to talk to, and someone to listen,” Gold said. “Life can be very lonely and isolating for these individuals, and having students show genuine interest tends to make them receptive to sharing what they’re going through.”
Purple Hands recently partnered with the Western Serves Network, allowing students who participate in the group’s upcoming education series to earn credit on their co-curricular records for attending the following events:
- Poverty in London–A Case Study – Feb. 7, 6:00-7:00 p.m.: Attendees will learn some of the harsh realities of living in poverty; working on a budget, paying for public transportation, navigating language and childcare barriers.
- Housing Symposium – Feb. 26: Exploring homelessness with a focus on deprivation and intersectionality.
- Case Competition – Mar. 19: Armed with knowledge on the housing crisis and harm reduction, participants will be asked to make educated and ethically guided proposals to address the ongoing housing crisis in Ontario.
Since its inception, Purple Hands has distributed more than 1,200 pieces of clothing, 500 personal hygiene products, and 150 food items. They’ve attracted more than 200 volunteers and 30 youth mentors.
The group is now developing a framework to show other students across Canada how they can create meaningful change in their communities.
Working with the organization has also made an impact on Gold’s career aspirations. While she came to Western with an aim to become a doctor, she now wants to apply what she’s learning in the classroom and non-profit community to make lasting change.
She finds inspiration through Schulich Medicine graduate Dr. Andrea Sereda, HBSc’03, MD’07. Dr. Sereda was a guest speaker at the Purple Hands winter 2021 symposium, where she shared her experience working as a physician at the London Intercommunity Health Centre. “Hearing about her work gave me a new perspective on the barriers to accessing health care that some people face,” Gold said. “Her presentation helped show that I can combine my passion for helping the marginalized with my interests in medicine.”