February 14, 2012

Breakfast is now being served: Thunderbird elementary schoolkids get healthy start to the day

by Gerry Bellett, Vancouver Sun

Three months ago Thunderbird elementary school principal Henry Peters surveyed his little flock and wondered how he’d shepherd them through a cold and hungry winter.
Emergency food coupons — kept in a drawer for famished families unable to get through the month with sufficient food — were almost exhausted, and there was a growing demand for granola bars for kids arriving in the morning complaining of hunger.
Across the street, in the largest social housing project in the province — and home to many of Thunderbird’s students, mattresses were again piled up outside as yet another beg-bug infestation added further misery to an already stressed-out community on Cassiar Street near Broadway.
Those were November’s cares.
But on Wednesday morning Peters’ anxieties were of a different sort. It was the first day of the school’s brand-new breakfast program, funded through the generosity of Vancouver Sun readers. Now that he had something more substantial on offer than granola bars, Peters worried if enough children would arrive to eat it all.
“I’m not sure how many kids we’ll get today,” he said as the doors opened at 8 a.m. Waiting for them was an array of food: milk and cheerios, waffles, yogurt, oranges and bananas, bagels and fruit juice.
Peters, wearing his Superman belt, wouldn’t be disappointed.
By 8:15 a.m. there were more than 30 children happily enjoying breakfast.
“When the word gets out we’ll likely have upwards of 100 — I hope so, these kids need it,” he said, relieved that none of the food would be wasted.
Thunderbird is one of 30 B.C. schools benefiting from what Vancouver Sun publisher Kevin Bent describes as an “astonishing and overwhelming display of generosity” from readers who donated to the newspaper’s Adopt-a-School campaign.
Bent was at Thunderbird to mark the occasion.
Later he said it was obvious from the kids’ reactions the program was necessary.
“If we can’t help our young kids, we really have our priorities messed up,” he said.
“It’s great to be here today and see the impact this breakfast program has on kids and indirectly on their parents.”
For kindergarten teacher Janey Lee one of the objectives of the breakfast program — attracting children to school — was already proving effective.
“There’s some children here that we never see. When they come to school they are always late and they miss so much.”
When Adopt-a-School began in November, the board of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund, of which Bent is chair, had agreed to match up to $50,000 in reader donations.
But the response from the public, business and labour organizations was so great the Children’s Fund has agreed to match more than $300,000 in donations. More than $600,000 is now available to fight hunger and need in B.C. schools.
“The campaign asked our readers to help any way they could and the response was overwhelming,” said Bent. So many great programs will come out of it, whether it’s the one we’re witnessing this morning, or others. There have been donations in the $25,000 range from private citizens [as well as] clothing, food; computers from companies like Futureshop and Best Buy; corporate support from the likes of Telus; community support; individual support. It’s great to see people rally around a really wonderful initiative.”
Bent added the program would continue.
“There’s a need for it first of all, and secondly, the support that came from the community was great and what has happened has had a significant impact. These are the types of programs we want to be involved with.”
As Bent left the school, two seven-year-olds he’d met in the impromptu dinning room popped up in a corridor and serenaded him with a chorus of “goodbye Kevin.”
So what else has Adopt-a-School achieved?
Since the campaign began there numerous companies and individuals have gone about adopting a school and helping in their own quiet way, off the radar of Bent and The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund board.
For instance, Peters and some other principals of inner-city schools have been approached by a fruit wholesaler who has promised them $500 worth of fresh fruit a month. Other schools have received similar overtures.
When the public learned that Thunderbird needed a washer and drier for parents who were handwashing their children’s clothes, Peters found himself with enough appliances to open a laundromat.
People have been walking into schools throughout the Lower Mainland with cheques to buy iPads, or making donations for food gift vouchers, so teachers can give them to parents to tide them over after the food has run out.
Schools in wealthier areas have adopted inner-city schools, and this winter, clothes, boots and pyjamas have been delivered to children who need them.
Earlier this week, the board of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund approved the majority of schools that applied for help to receive funds. Requests from a number of schools whose applications were late or did not meet the criteria will be dealt with later this month.
The province’s inner-city schools have many needs and their children suffer more from budget cutbacks than those in wealthy areas with strong PACs (parent advisory counsels) capable of raising money to soften the blow.
In addition to breakfast and after-school food programs, Adopt-a-School funds will buy food gift cards, bus fares for field trips, technology or special equipment for learning-disabled children, clothing, food hampers, and a variety of other items to meet children’s needs.

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