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A mural by Downtown Eastside artist Smokey D is seen in an alley in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, B.C. on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

It is easy to forget that even before fentanyl, which claimed the lives of more than 350 Vancouverites this year alone, people routinely died from drug overdoses. One of them was Andres Parra, a 23-year-old artist who couldn’t kick his habit and overdosed in 2007.

As a boy, Andres was a good student and athlete with a kind nature and many close friends. But in high school he started smoking pot, drinking and then moved on to more serious drugs. He started dealing drugs for a gang and routinely hit up his family for money. But there were also stretches when Mr. Parra would stop using and thrive; he once quit long enough to paint a significant body of work and sold two pieces at an exhibit for a couple of thousand dollars apiece.

Yet, the lure of drugs was too strong. Mr. Parra ended up homeless and squatted behind a Downtown Eastside (DTES) dumpster for a time. On the day he died, he had crashed with a friend who found him in the morning, slumped over, his chin on his chest.

When Andres’s uncle Jorge Parra and his wife, Izabel Brioschi, got the call, they were not surprised. But that did not lessen the family’s devastation. “When they are alive, there is hope,” Mr. Parra says.

Andres’s family grieved privately. Back then, before overdose deaths grew so common and people from all walks of life began to speak openly about their losses, families feared being judged.

The Parras' silence ended in 2015, on Thanksgiving Day, after a conversation about the opioid overdose crisis with one of Ms. Brioschi’s friends. Her friend’s daughter had been addicted to drugs and moved to the DTES. She cut ties with her family, saying she didn’t want to see them any more. Ms. Brioschi’s friend nevertheless went to visit the run-down hotel where her daughter lived and posted a simple note on the door: “I love you.”

Now drug free, her daughter later said the knowledge someone loved her carried her to rehab.

They spoke about the miserable lives of people in the DTES and how so many people lack necessities such as toothbrushes, shampoo and socks. Mr. Parra and Ms. Brioschi had always wanted to do something in memory of Andres, and after that Thanksgiving dinner, the Andres Project was born.

They approached the Vancity branch in Kitsilano, which although not far from the DTES, is a vastly better off neighbourhood. They sought permission to erect a poster asking for the collection of travel-size toiletries for people in the DTES. Within every package would be tucked a short note of love and encouragement.

Ron Bascom, a concierge who greets people at the branch, liked the idea, got it approved and donations started to pour in. Travellers collected hotel soaps and shampoos. People dropped off packages of socks. Toques and gloves arrived.

At some point, an Air Transat employee read the sign and offered to collect and launder used blankets from flights. Air Transat flight attendants collected toiletries from their many hotel stops. Mr. Bascom was awed by the response and raised it at Vancity’s concierge forum. Other branches jumped on board and dedicated their Christmas “Angel Tree” to The Andres Project. The trees are decorated with cards. On one side is a pretty picture and on the other a request for a specific donation. Vancity members can take a card as a reminder and return it with their contribution.

This year so much has poured into the Kitsilano branch that volunteers made multiple deliveries before Christmas. Ms. Brioschi has watched faces of people light up as they read the note. There have been many hugs.

To the Parra family, the project is a fitting legacy for Andres, who even in the depths of addiction was known to be kind. For donors, The Andres Project seems to have become – in the face of our seemingly insurmountable homelessness and fentanyl crises – a way to feel they can help. In dark days, small kindnesses lend us all hope.