By Chris Hibbard - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on January 18, 2024.
There are many terms that could describe Ken Hakstol. An everyday angel maybe. A Good Samaritan perhaps.
Hakstol would reject these descriptors, as accurate as they may be.
Hakstol is a Lethbridge resident, a retired teacher, a husband and a father of two. About once a week he spends his own money to purchase flats of bottled drinks, granola bars and toothpaste, and then he heads downtown to distribute them to Lethbridge’s homeless population.
Only a chance encounter with Hakstol at the downtown library would reveal this selfless hobby.
Hakstol taught Grades 1-9 throughout his career at different schools in the region with the Holy Spirit School Board, with years spent teaching in Taber, Picture Butte and satellite communities.
Since he retired, he now finds he has extra time to help others – just because he can. His wife and kids are fully on-side with his effort. “Basically it all started around the supper table once when we were talking about this,” Hakstol said. “We were talking about how everybody says that you should be doing something, or that they should be doing something. And we thought, you know what? Everybody is right. Someone should do something. So why not us?”
Hakstol said he’s been helping the homeless for about three years now.
“It’s sort of something I’ve grown into,” Hakstol said. “It started out with just picking up a flat of water at Costco, then I just dropped it off at the park downtown. I didn’t deliver it personally or anything at first. I just knew they were looking for it, so I’d find people that were distributing it and give it to them.”
Hakstol said that he did that four or five times. Then one morning he asked a volunteer he saw helping in the park if he could tag along with them for a while.
“I wanted to know how do they distribute this and make sure it goes where it’s needed the most. These were just volunteers in the park at the time. I didn’t know anything about the SAGE Clan or any organized groups.”
Hakstol started doing that a little bit more. One day he had picked up a flat of Gatorade, and as he had previously asked one of these volunteers for a phone number he could call if he had stuff to drop off, he called. The volunteer said he wasn’t in town that day, Hakstol recalled, but that volunteer gave him a different number to try. This ended up connecting Hakstol to a young lady who he chose not to name.
“I had seen her before helping out, and we ended up going out fairly regularly together. She was a former addict, so she knew the people and they knew her,” Hakstol said.
“She was also trying to get them into rehab, and she was always saying ‘hey, how about today for rehab’, and they’d reply, ‘well, not today’, and she’d say ‘OK well, I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you – and then she would.”
These early days of charitable volunteerism have turned into a fairly regular routine for Hakstol, and for another very committed young lady who goes out even more regularly than he does, he added.
“Basically, whatever I have extra, or I have available to me, if I have the time and I am able to, I’ll take it out and share it with people who don’t have anything,” he said. He said that he doesn’t have a set schedule for his giving, but mentions his membership with the St. Martha’s Knights of Columbus organization, who volunteer often as well, being hosts for soup kitchen nights and sometimes joining him on his weekly rounds.
St. Martha’s K of C have allocated funds to help with this work, as well as allowing them Hakstol and friends to use their kitchens to prepare snacks and brew tea for the cold days.
Hakstol made it clear he does not work for or volunteer for any particular charity, non-profit group or organization. He gets no tax write-offs and no compensation.
He summed it us as being a “simple, grassroots, community effort,” consisting of friendly people who just want to help. He often goes out with a small group of one or two others, so as to not be intimidating when approaching strangers.
He said that he has tremendous respect for Mark Brave Rock and the volunteers with the SAGE Clan group, that go around downtown regularly with gifts of food, beverages and clothing.
Hakstol has learned that the SAGE Clan operates on certain nights of the week, so he often selects the days they don’t.
“Otherwise, on those days, there is less available for them.” In the colder months, Hakstol and the other volunteers will sometimes prepare a thermos of hot tea to give out, and his wife knits handmade toques and mitts to distribute.
“Just about a year ago today,” Hakstol recalled, “the Knights of Columbus asked me to come and talk about what I was doing. Later in the year they established an outreach program and they asked me head it up. They’ve given some funding and some support,” Hakstol said, “but charity is more than just a cheque.”
He believes that there has to be a personal connection. He said that what he and his volunteer friends do is not about the food and the water. It’s also the conversations they have. The questions they ask. The humanity in being seen and recognized by other people.
“As a teacher,” Hakstol said, “unless I had a relationship with a student, I couldn’t teach them much. This is like that. This is more about building a relationship, and just letting them know that someone cares for them today.”
Hakstol talked at length about his motivations for doing good acts for others for no particular reason at all.
“I don’t this for any personal reason really. I’m not looking to promote myself. I hope that maybe this article might just inspire other people. Because there are those out there that just think and say, ‘Just leave ’em alone, they’ll figure it out.’ But I don’t believe that. They can’t figure it out if they’re not alive.”
He said that he’s been blessed in his own life, with a good education and few wants for anything.
“We’re fortunate, but any one of us could end up out on the street, and so it’s kind of by the grace of God that we go on, you know?” When asked about faith, religion and spiritual motivations for his giving, Hakstol replied. “Of course there’s a spiritual aspect to it. Our faith tells us that we should be helping the poor and less fortunate right? There’s a passage in the Bible that basically says, ‘whatever you do to the least of these people, you also did it to me.’ So, yeah, I guess its not formal, but it is like faith in action.” He calls it a different type of charity – not chequebook charity. I could give my money to a charity to do the things we do, but I always think that I get more out of it this way; that I get more out of it than it costs me to give.”
Having helped others for years now, Hakstol noted that he’s gotten to know many of the unhoused in the downtown region, and many of the people who work hard to assist them – mostly others like him that typically go unnamed and unnoticed.
Hakstol, with or without his friends, usually starts his volunteerism at Galt Gardens or the library downtown. He said it’s pretty much a six-block area that they will walk around with their wagons, loaded with whatever we have, stopping occasionally when they near groups of individuals.
He said that after doing it for a long time now, he has gotten to know where he’s most likely to find the people he wants to help. He said that after a time, the people also start to know him and his friends, and “so by the time we’ve basically gotten our little wagon unloaded, they’ve already started to come over to us.”
Hakstol admits that he’s seen some of the worst parts of humanity, including overdoses and attempts to resuscitate. He admits that the downtown core is much different when he travels around it at night time than it is during the daylight hours.
He was clear in stating that he has never felt threatened or in danger when making his rounds.
“In fact, its the complete opposite. They are always appreciative of the small efforts we make. They’d ask me, ‘why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?’ and I’d say, I do it because I can, and because I care about you.” Hakstol said that one major motivation for him is that he wants them to be alive.
“So that when they, as a person, decide to overcome whatever issues are holding them down; when they decide they’ve had enough and they want help, they’re gonna be alive to get it.” To this end, it’s not uncommon for Hakstol and his friends to have NarCan on hand, to assist with overdose reversals and to simply give out to others.
When asked about his thoughts on how our society deals with homelessness, Hakstol thought carefully before answering.
“What we could all do better at, as a city, a province and a society – it just not to dismiss them. They are people. They could be your son, your daughter, your brother or your father. They are victims of circumstance, and the worst thing we can do is just to ignore them.” He continued carefully. “You hear it all the time. Why don’t they just go get a job and be contributing members of society. But for many of these people, whether its because of their addictions or their other circumstances, they’re likely never going to be able to work and pay taxes. But they’re still worthwhile people. They’re still worth saving. You don’t just throw them on the garbage heap because they’re not what you think they should be.”
Hakstol is quick to admit that homelessness is an issue with no easy answers. He called it a complex problem without simple solutions. He noted that our politicians tend to want simple, expedient solution – not the long term ones that require time and effort to reach a sustainable solution.
Additionally, Hakstol believes that members of the homeless population should be involved with decisions made about “the homeless situation” in Lethbridge. “It’s great to have some task force with council members and police and business owners on it, but you know who is not on it? Anyone who is currently or formerly homeless, those who know more about what is really going on on our streets.”
Hakstol believes it is very valuable for generous citizens to get educated. He recommends that we all use the resources that already exist. “Go for a walk with the SAGE Clan. Meet the indigenous people that are doing this kind of work. I would encourage anybody – politicians included – to go for a walk with the SAGE Clan.
“They’ll welcome you. They’ll show you around. They’ll share what they’ve learned so you don’t need to learn it all over again by yourself.”
As for Hakstol’s hobby of helping others, he won’t be stopping any time soon. “The opportunity is there for me to do it. So as long as I am able to, I don’t see why I’d stop. The need will always be there.”
So call him whatever you will, but there’s no denying that Ken Hakstol and his friends are just good old fashioned nice people – people that you don’t read about in the news every day.