Parents Sandy and Mark have always believed in helping others. But it wasn’t until their son Andrew came into their lives that they understood how much further their family’s acts of kindness could go.
By Tamar Satov
Most people don’t choose to spend Christmas Eve on the street—and that fact is exactly what motivated Andrew Miller Teel to go to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—a neighbourhood known for its poverty, drugs and crime—when he was just 12 years old. On December 24, his arms were laden with essentials, like toothbrushes, warm gloves and bottled water, packed into stockings he would distribute to the homeless. “I realized that could have been me if I didn’t get adopted,” says Andrew, now 16 and an active fundraiser on behalf of homeless and at-risk youth.
The Port Coquitlam, B.C., teen spent years in foster care. At five, he was a year or two away from “aging out” of the foster system and being put into residential care—and at high risk of becoming a runaway.
Then he met Sandy Teel.
Without knowing who Sandy was, Andrew would see her outside his kindergarten each morning. “I operate a home-based daycare and would walk my little people to school and give them each a hug goodbye,” Sandy remembers. One day, Andrew worked up the courage to ask her if he could have a hug, too.
“Andrew saw someone being kind and he responded to that,” she says.
From that day on, Sandy hugged Andrew every morning. It wasn’t until sometime later that she found out Andrew was in foster care and, by that point, she was smitten. Her feelings for Andrew didn’t go unnoticed by her husband, Mark, and their son, Darren, who was 17 at the time. When Darren said, “You talk about Andrew every day. Why don’t you just adopt him?” it was the push Sandy needed. Once Mark met Andrew, he agreed adding Andrew to their family felt right. “Somehow it was like he was always our kid and we just found him again,” she says.
Given the enormity of the couple’s generosity, it isn’t surprising that Andrew followed their lead in terms of his desire to give back. Yet Sandy maintains Andrew is the true golden heart of the family. “We’ve always stepped up when there was a need—volunteering at the school, or if someone’s ill and needs food or a ride. But before Andrew we weren’t out there advocating,” she says. “We definitely weren’t on the Downtown Eastside handing out stockings on Christmas Eve.”
Indeed, when Andrew suggested the holiday visit to Oppenheimer Park, which can be a scary place filled with illegal activity, Mark was worried for the family’s safety. Nevertheless, both he and Sandy stood behind Andrew and overcame their fears to encourage their budding social activist.
Those Christmas stockings were just the start for Andrew. Through that initiative, he became involved with Covenant House and, in 2016, created a “Twoonies for Teens” drive to raise money for Vancouver’s homeless and at-risk youth. He produced a video for the campaign, explaining that his goal was a modest $100—or enough Twoonies to fill a Pringles potato-chip package—and got permission to screen it at his school. His story went viral, ending up on social media, radio and television, allowing him to raise an extraordinary $50,000; 500 times his original goal. Just as impressive: he wrote individual thank-you notes to everyone who donated, which took him six months to finish.
Since then, Andrew hasn’t slowed down. He’s held bake sales to raise money for the Street Soccer League for homeless and marginalized people, gathered more than 200 hoodies from nearby schools and businesses to donate to homeless and at-risk youth, and collected bags of stuffed toys for Critter Care Wildlife Society so that orphaned baby animals have something soft to cuddle. And he’s still raising money for Covenant House in various campaigns, including an additional $7,000 through his Twoonies for Teens page.
In recognition of his advocacy and fundraising work, Andrew was chosen to represent his school at WE Day Vancouver in 2017. At the event, held at Rogers Arena, he was further inspired by speaker Spencer West, who lost both his legs at age five. “His biggest message is that anybody can make a difference,” says Andrew, who advises other young people to pick something that matters to them and start with a small goal. “Remember, every act of kindness matters.”
As for Sandy and Mark, they can’t help but smile when people tell them what an amazing job they’ve done with Andrew. “We tell them: Andrew has done such an amazing job with us,” she says. “We just ask what we can do to help, and we support him 1,000 per cent.”