December 13, 2011

Schools in Need: CABE looks after teen mothers and their children

Brenda Ramirez and her six-month old baby Natalia. Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun

For many Grade 12 students, graduation year is a hectic but fabled time of anticipation and excitement as the world beyond the classroom waits.

But for Vanessa Ellingson — the head and breadwinner of a family of three — the thought of leaving the security of Coquitlam’s smallest secondary school fills her with dread.

“I’m graduating this year and I’m scared — really scared — that I won’t be here any more,” says the mom of three-year-old Pablo and baby Marley, seven months old.

She was 15 when she had Pablo and, given the vicissitudes of life, it has taken until now to get to the edge of graduation.

Life as a high school student and a single mom on social assistance is tough enough — even with all the help she gets from staff at CABE (Coquitlam Alternative Basic Education).

And when that ends in June, she fears the abyss.

So, too, on her behalf, does principal Paul McNaughton.

“The big thing I’m struggling with is how do we prepare our kids for life after school? How do we get these kids, who don’t have any money, access to post-secondary education or job training? How do they even pay the application fees for something like Douglas College?”

McNaughton’s school on Foster Avenue is in an area of prosperous middle-class homes. There’s a tennis academy just down the street and the Vancouver Golf Club is at the end of the road. But most of his students are too poor to join soccer teams, don’t have access to organized sports and can’t afford gym memberships.

All have struggles, he said, and have been referred in from other schools, community organizations or probation officers.

Many of the 230 students are at the upper end of the Vulnerability Index, which is used by educators to rate how poverty, family relationships or other factors affect a child’s vulnerability.

CABE has 12 teen moms on the books — only 10 regularly attend — and its own YMCA daycare that looks after babies while their moms attend class.

Some mothers, like 16-year-old Brenda Ramirez, live at home and have supportive families.

Her baby is six months old and she has none of the problems with poverty and hunger faced by some of her classmates who are in care, or, like Ellingson, fending for themselves.

Ellingson receives $1,100 a month from income assistance.

“Welfare is my rent. I basically get a $90 cheque from them after they pay the rent,” she says.

With child benefits, she has about $700 a month for the three to live on.

Of this, about $250 goes to fixed costs. A large chunk of that — $100 — goes to daycare as Pablo is too old for the school’s daycare. Other fixed-cost items include Hydro and cable — she would do without, but it’s for her three-year-old.

That leaves about $450 for food, clothes, diapers, bus fares and whatever sundry items life demands.

She needs the food bank to keep the kids fed and the likes of Value Village for cheap clothing.

“When I get my money I always pay my bills and I buy food. For a couple of weeks I don’t have any money. When I’m down to my last $20, I save it for milk for Pablo. I’m breastfeeding the baby,” she says.

Without the help she gets with meals at school, she’d likely be hungry for most of the week.

“A week before welfare all I have in the fridge is a little bit of food, which I won’t eat because I’m not going to eat the babies’ food,” she says. “We never have sweets or chips, stuff like that.”

For McNaughton, as with many principals in Metro Vancouver, the effects of poverty and deprivation can’t be ignored.

“We can’t do our jobs [as educators] unless basic needs are met. We just get frustrated and so we have to take them on. How can we help kids when we know there’s no food in their home — none. I’ve had to pay for gift cards for Walmart or Save-On-Foods from school funds,” he says.

His school is blessed by having a number of donors such as Telus and the Rotary Club, and private organizations that offer help. But the needs of such a high-maintenance school population quickly drains any private assistance he receives.

“We need help with such things as grocery gift cards, clothes, diapers and bus tickets. Our school covers the entire Tri-Cities area, and 80 per cent of our kids use public transit. That’s $3.50 a day for bus fares and we have a lot of families who can’t afford it.”

Gillian Allen, a youth worker responsible for the mothers and babies, is counsellor, friend and advocate. Given that these are young women who didn’t seek an abortion, it would be fitting if pro-life groups came forward to help them, she said.

Allen has attempted to take on the bureaucracy that gives with one hand but takes away with the other.

“The child tax credit they receive usually comes a few months after they’ve had their baby,” said Allen. “One girl got about $1,200 but welfare stepped in and said, ‘We’re taking that off your cheque’ so for two months she got nothing. We appealed but we lost. We’re talking below the poverty line here.”

Welfare will deduct everything over $500 a student such as Ellingson receives. So when she received a $500 bursary from the University Women’s Club, welfare was ready to seize it.

“I raised a stink. I said ‘We’re going to get the cheque made out to $499,’ so the person in welfare went to his boss, who went to his boss, and in the end they let it go because she was a student.”

Recently, Ellingson’s family has grown by two. A classmate and her own baby are staying.

“She’s having trouble with her parents. So I told her she could stay with me,” she said.

Can she afford another two more mouths to feed?

“Not really, but we’ll manage.”

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. lulu
    Dec 20 2011

    It is sad that a young woman today @ 15 would get pregnant and then again without family or spousal support and then complain about society’s meger financial support. My heart does go out to her but my mind goes . . . where in the devil is her brain? Is it really my job to support her irresponsible sexual activities that brought her 2 children to raise in poverty. Really . . . don’t people have to be accountable at some point?

    • vansun
      Dec 21 2011

      There are many in society who wish that young women who find themselves in such a situation would, as these girls have, not have an abortion but have the child and do their best to raise it.
      If they do, the same people in society who would support that move morally have a duty to assist financially, do they not?
      And even if you don’t support the actions of the mother, do you believe the child should suffer? Either way, we should do what we can to look after children in families that are struggling, whether those struggles come from actions within the parent’s control, or outside it.
      That’s what we’re doing here.

  2. Sarren
    Jun 2 2015

    I went to cabe, i wasnt a parent or parent to be at this school. But this school i will proudly say got me through some rough times and graduation. I too was sad to leave, this school changed me, made mw who i am today, although i am now a single mother. That doesnt make a differance. Some religions dont believe in abortion and some poeple cant go through with it. Speaking from experience some mothers and/or fathers find out they are pregnant and they are told they will have support off of family, friends coubcellors, teachers or any other type of organisation. So they think things are going to run smoothly. But in all honesty nothing ever runs smoothly, i was told when i found out i was pregnant that i would have theove and support from my partner at the time, friends and family also said it. So i decided to keep my daughter. Then when the first 12 weeks was up, i was kicked out to fend for myself, the only thing that kept me going is knowing whatever happens i will have my daughter and she will have me. I too am still a low povrrty young single mother, tryung to find my way to the top. Which these single mother/fatbers or young couples are doing. There in school bettering there education to better theife of there child(ren). We have some people that do not approve of our situations at hand. That is ok, because it is not you who has to live our lives. It is not you ho has to be awake all night and still fight to stay awake and concentrate on our school work, trying to acheieve good in life so we can do the best for our children. The worlds future depends on them. Ever young parent i have ever known to come out of cabe has done a great job at raising there children. And the teachers abd support workers there as wonderful. There helpful with advice and guidance. If yoy cannot find it in yoyr heart to understand everyone has different views and biliefs on life and the future than thats ok too. But remmeber its schools and organisations like these that get most people through. No one should be knocking anyone for trying there best. The lesson i always try to teach people is no matter how you see something somons is always right. You say pro abortion your right, i say no abortion, im right. It just depnds how you see things. Anyways what im getting at is, this school made me believe i could acheive anything i wanted too. No other scho was able to provide that guidance for me. This school was a blessing in another blessing for me. I was a year behind in my schooling, but with the help and support of all the ataff there i graduated with eveyone in my proper graduating year. My mind was full of things from achool to work to household problems and paying rent to my mother i was 16 when i began to attend cabe i graduated at 17 and then i travelled to the uk which. I lived there for almost 4 years. It was a great experience. I didnt think i could do something like that until cabe gave mw hope to acheieve things i thought were impossible. Before going to cabe i told eberyone i couldnt wait to get out of school, abd that u didnt want to graduate. I even dropped out of achool because regular public achool and private schools werent working for me. My life at home was never easy being pulled apart from the island to the mainland since the age for 4 but again, cabe helped me believe it wasnt as bad at it seemed and i could pull through if i put my mind to it. Again no other achool did that for me. No other school gave me the chance. They saw me as a trouble maker, a class clown, a brat child, “a troubled child” who might they add “couldnt be saved” so again. I tbank this school for taking me in. It was a long progress to get in, i had to bring i. All my school report cards and they had to view my acadiemic skills and behavioral akills before i could be accepted. We even had to have a meeting, they were close to not letting me attend thT particular alternative school. But they did. Thank goodness for that. To this day my favourate teachers came from my time at cabe. I am ever so thankful for eveythung they did. They still hp me when i need someone to talk to or inforamtion they know about and i dont. This school is a great community. Or should i say family really. When reading thw report that was written about this school and the single mother who was interviewed. It made me cry, because i am now in her shoes. I couldnt imagine doing this full time job of being a single mother while going to svhool and working. Or not even working for that matter. It is very hard on welfare or not. It is always hard with children. Of any age, weatber its another child having a child or a young adult having a child that never got around to finishing there sxhooling. They are there because thwy want what is bwst for there child(ren) they are not forced to go, they choose to go, so they can one day provide for there children without the help of welfare feiends family, bus ticjets or even gift cards. I too have recieved gift cards from mr. Mcnaughton and verg (one of the councellors) during my time there, because although living at home i was resposible for my own toilettirez extra foods i wanted bus fares and luches at school. Never qill i ever forget how much this school help me grow and become the young woman i am. Ever. I thank everyone that is there today and how has been there in the past. I thank everyone who has donated or helped fund or zupport theze types of educations. Withiut it i would probably be working a minimum wage job still struggling more than ever and not feing good about myself.


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