December 6, 2011

Schools in need: 150 students in Whalley’s Kwantlen Park Secondary need help with food, clothes, housing

Surrey youth worker Dynell Forman runs a lunch program for students in need at Kwantlen Park secondary in Whalley. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG

The need is quickly apparent at the inner-city school of Kwantlen Park secondary in Whalley.
Five minutes into a conversation between a school youth worker and a reporter, a teenager is seen crying in the cafeteria and needs consoling. A hungry student pops by to ask if she can get her free lunch – possibly the only meal she’ll have that day – early. And a 16-year-old bounds over excitedly to say she has found a place to live on her own but needs a reference from the worker.
Dynell Forman, who has worked at the school for the past four years as the YES (Youth Educational Services) coordinator, is a very busy woman in a job that could be heartbreaking if it weren’t for her positive attitude.
“One of the things I learned is our students are amazingly resilient,” she said. “I’ll see youths whose parents have died, whose homes are breaking apart, but they come to school every day. I see a lot of hope in that.”
“I’m trying to provide them with experiences that build their own capacity. We all have barriers but we [the school] can be helpful in setting up a plan for them.”
Which means that besides being places of learning, schools such as Kwantlen Park are trying to provide a social safety network for their students, some of whom are going without basics such as food and warm clothing. In the worst cases, some don’t even have homes.
This year, Forman advocated for four students so they could get underage income assistance to enable them to pay for a place of their own.
In one case, staff have been working for eight weeks to find a suitable nearby apartment for a 16-year-old girl. The teen has been couch surfing with friends because her own family home isn’t a safe place to live.
To address the need for clothing, Forman recently connected with a Surrey-based organization called Clothes-On-Wheels. When it visited the school last month to provide seasonal clothing such as coats, mitts and scarves, 125 families showed up.
For teenagers wearing the same few items of clothes over and over but too embarrassed to take charity at a public event, the school got creative.
School counsellor Nancy Arends explained that, as at many schools, Kwantlen Park teachers hand out incentive cards whenever they see a student doing something positive. At the end of the week, a card is drawn, with the prize often being something like a new hoodie. “Often that student’s ticket gets to the top of the barrel,” she said.
“We do have a lot of kids doing well but the front-line workers see the other side of it,” Arends said. “A portion of our kids are very needy. It’s very heartbreaking.
“Some of our kids are refugees who are coming from tents in their former lives and coming to the school trying to figure out how it works in Canada. They have very, very little. They don’t have voices, so don’t advocate for themselves, so we have to be vigilant about them.”
She said there are about 100 refugee and new immigrant students at the school who could use additional supports, along with the Canadianborn students who end up neglected because their families are “struggling, not coping well with life.”
She gave the example of a 15-year old boy whose fridge is always empty. School staff helped connect him with the local food bank so he has something to eat.
Forty-five students from low-income families are part of the free lunch program, which is at its maximum for funding.
But another 25 other students are also coming to school hungry each day, so the YES program, run out of a portable behind the school, ensures they, too, are fed. Teachers pay out of their own pockets for extra food supplies to make soups, and peanut butter sandwiches for the youths every lunch.
Arenas said Christmas is particularly hard because staff want to help, but the need is even greater. Last year, for instance, staff chipped in to provide Christmas hampers to 17 needy families. This year, the count has more than tripled to 53 families needing hampers.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. Last year we asked staff to contribute money and we were able to put together 17 hampers but we had to stretch it. Our strategy is to get each department to adopt a family, but that’s just 12 departments.”
Principal Rick Breen said of the student population of approximately 1,500, about 10 per cent come from homes with varying degrees of problems and need additional support.
He said the holiday season tends to accentuate the gap between the hives and have-nots, and he wonders whether the students who rely on the school for lunches will get enough to eat over the two-week school break.
“Anxiety in our school ramps up as we head toward Christmas,” he said. “For many of our kids, coming to school is the most normal time of their day. They’re around friendly, supportive people, exposed to clubs and learning. They don’t always get that at home. These are the kids who won’t be getting the new snowboard or iPod under the Christmas tree.”
Breen said the teenagers from needy families are like any other teenagers who want to fit in.
“There’s a lot of messages at Christmas to have the right stuff, the right sneakers, the right jeans … to meet that threshold of social acceptance.”
Another area of need is a fund to buy transit passes for students. Getting home becomes a safety issue for students who want to stay for afterschool events, particularly in the winter when dark falls early.
Breen said kids will discreetly ask for a pass, particularly on rainy nights, but the school isn’t always able to give them one.
kpemberton@vancouversun.com

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