November 29, 2011

School in need: Thunderbird Elementary goes above and beyond with food and laundry

Teacher Janey Lee and principal Henry Peters with students (from left) Thonas Isberg, Tanya Johal, William Dobbie, Selina Liu, Farhiya Mohamed and Van Duh Hmong at Thunderbird elementary.

When Henry Peters and Janey Lee graduated, there was nothing in the fine print on their teaching certificates that mentioned having to be semi-professional fundraisers or part-time social workers.

Teachers teach, social workers care for a community’s welfare, and mendicant friars with begging bowls have long since been replaced by slick TV hosts and prime-time telethons.

Of course, that’s in a perfect world.

In the world surrounding Thunderbird elementary on Cassiar Street — which exists in the shadow of the province’s largest social housing project and all that entails — such demarcations have long since vanished.

A short example shows why:

“I’ve just had a single mom of three come in [from the housing project across the street] saying she doesn’t know what she was going to do because she doesn’t have any food for the rest of the week,” says Peters, the school’s principal.

That’s a dilemma clearly in the mandate of social services, but Peters and Lee — who teaches kindergarten — know using that as an excuse to send her away empty-handed will leave the family hungry.

So Peters digs through his emergency pack, a Ziploc sandwich bag containing gift cards for Superstore, Walmart or Save-On-Foods, scrounged from anyone with a kind heart and an open wallet.

The woman was given the last of the $50 gift certificates.

“We’re down to the $20s now,” he says, rooting through the bag just to be sure.

At one time, the school district provided inner-city schools with substantial allowances to deal with such things, but these days, that’s down to about $6,000 a year.

That soon vanishes at a place like Thunderbird; hence the reliance on genteel begging.

“People ask if they can help and I say, ‘Send us a gift card, we can really use them.’”

There are other things they could really use. For instance, a washer and dryer.

Schools are not supposed to be laundromats, just as they’re not supposed to be food banks, but the staff here — who dispense whatever food they can scrounge to children arriving hungry — have long since given up making distinctions.

And, anyway, how is the staff supposed to react when small children come to school so smelly that Lee has to seek out a mom to find out why?

“It seems the family had no access to washing machines. They’re either broken where they live and haven’t been fixed or they can’t afford the laundromat. So they’ve been handwashing. They are not the only ones,” says Lee.

Peters is now thinking the school will have to fit in a washer and dryer somewhere so it can become a communal laundry.

Of course, there’s no money to buy and install a washer and dryer, but like the immortal Mr. Micawber, Peters can only hope something will turn up.

It goes without saying that the neighbourhood bringing all these problems to the school’s door is incredibly needy.

“There’s involvement with crime here, substance abuse, mental health problems. There’s a lot of single-parent families. We’re seeing an increase in single-father families, which is new. A lot of dysfunctional families along with ESL and refugee and immigrant families,” Peters lists.

“Janey’s class has 15 students and 11 languages. It’s a challenge.”

“You hear stories all the time. Some of it is, ‘I’m hungry at school, the family next door was fighting and we heard everything all night, so-and-so tried to commit suicide, my mom’s running away, going back to Vietnam’ … But through it all the kids are amazingly resilient, wonderfully loving, warm and caring.”

Two other issues are bedbugs and head lice, says Peters.

“We can always tell when bed bugs are going to be a problem when we see mattresses getting stacked up across the road,” he says, indicating the social housing development that stretches from Broadway down Cassiar to the mosque on Fifth Ave.

“Sometimes we see people taking mattresses back from the pile. I guess that’s all they have to sleep on.”

More than half the students come from across the street, says Lee.

“That’s the biggest social housing complex in the province. Many people there are on social assistance. We also have working poor families that struggle with poverty every day,” she says.

Many families routinely use food banks and children arrive at school hungry.

“Either the families can’t get it together [for breakfast] or they don’t have any food,” says Peters.

The school has a hot lunch program but needs to do more.

“We’d like to provide a proper breakfast and food for after school and weekends to get them through. It’s piecemeal right now. We hand out granola bars and bread we get from Cobbs, but it’s not enough,” says Peters.

Large bins of donated bread arrive Thursday; it’s all gone by Friday.

He estimates it would cost about $25,000 a year to do breakfast and provide after-school staples, although he has no idea where the money would come from.

Given the unremitting demands on teachers that go well beyond their classroom duties, they could flee for quieter professional pastures.

“We could do that,” says Lee.

“Every one of our teachers could do that. But we don’t because we love teaching here. We love the kids and the families. We just want to be able to do more.”

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