July 12, 2012

Guests asked to give to The Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign in lieu of the traditional gifts

No wedding is complete without joy and, in the minds of many, an abundance of gifts – the china, silver and whatnots that convention and affection deliver. Today when Dr. Brenda Lau and her fiance Doug Zabkar are married in Vancouver, there will be joy aplenty, but the roughly 95 guests will be arriving empty-handed.

Instead of accumulating an abundance of presents for themselves, the couple requested that family and friends divert their generosity to The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign. “We were so moved by what we read in The Vancouver Sun about the situation in inner-city schools – students struggling and families struggling – that we wanted to do something different with our wedding gifts,” said Lau, an anesthesiologist practising in Vancouver.

Brenda Lau and Doug Zakbar

Their request appeared on their wedding invitations and has elicited a heartwarming response, Lau said.

“We’ve had a lot of excited reaction from our friends and family, who said, ‘Wow, that’s a neat idea, we’d never have thought of it,’” she said.

This week Lau and Zabkar – a chartered accountant and a director of Western Management Consultants – visited Britannia secondary school’s Homework Club.

Located near Commercial and Venables, the school’s students are drawn from the poorest areas of the city. The Homework Club, which operates three evenings a week, is a lifeline for some students on the verge of abandoning any thoughts of pursuing post-secondary education.

The club provides students with tutors; supplies like pens, pencils, paper and binders; different rooms to accommodate all types of study – from loud and social, to small groups, and quiet and concentrated; scholarships for post-secondary education; gift certificates for regular attendance; and provincial exam preparation sessions.

“Education is really the road to freedom from poverty,” said Lau, who should know.

She came to Canada from Hong Kong as an infant, and her family was poor and struggled to make a living in Edmonton, where she grew up. She sees in the Homework Club a reflection of what her life was like.

“Ours was a typical immigrant story. My parents came to Canada to make a better life for their children. They didn’t have much to work with and didn’t have much of an education. If we’d have stayed in Hong Kong I don’t think I would have finished grade school,” Lau said.

She has had 17 years of post-secondary education, which resulted in a medical degree, a specialization in pain relief and a scholastic journey that took her from Edmonton to Vancouver, then to Australia and back.

Her curriculum vitae includes medical director of Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Pain Management Clinic; a University of B.C. assistant professor; a board member of the Pain Society of B.C.; a national task force member on establishing the specialty of pain medicine in Canada; and chair of the Academic Pain Directors of Canada.

Last November, the couple read about Britannia’s Home-work Club, which was on the verge of collapsing because it was running out of the private funds that had sustained it.

The story precipitated an out-pouring of help from the public, with Future Shop stepping forward to supply five touch-screen computers to replace old and broken-down units, while other donors provided a financial boost to keep the club going a few more years.

At the time the club had been providing peanut butter and jam sandwiches on Thursday nights, which attracted the largest crowd of the week, as some students brought hungry younger siblings with them to eat.

“But since we received help from The Sun, we’re able to serve a hot meal. We’ll have 40 kids lined up now and we can give them stir-fry or stew with buns – give them a proper meal,” said teacher Kim Leary, who runs the club.

What attracted the couple’s attention was that homework coaching was being provided by students from UBC and Simon Fraser University, a number of whom were former Britannia grads who had previously benefited from the Homework Club.

“It struck us right away,” Lau said.

“We want to do something to encourage and help those volunteers.”

Four former Britannia students – Celina McCaughran-Contreras, Arooj Hayat, Megan Mulder and Karah Walker – were at the club when Lau and Zabkar dropped by.

Leary said the club couldn’t operate without them, as some nights there have been as many as 50 students looking for help.

“So far this year, we’ve had 379 students that have attended the club,” Leary said.

UBC student McCaughran-Contreras, 20, said paying for tuition was not an option for kids attending Britannia.

“Kids in this school are not going to be able to afford tuition to help them improve their marks,” said McCaughran-Contreras, who lives six blocks from Britannia and has her sights set on medical school.

“That’s why this is such a valuable program. I come here because I grew up going to this school and I know academic success is sometimes hard to find here,” she said.

Lau told the university volunteers of her own struggles to get an education.

“Seventeen years of post-secondary and you’re saying to yourself, ‘I’m okay now, I’m on my feet.’ So I read the story about what you guys are doing and it’s so amazing. You punched your way through school and graduated, and now you’ve come back and are helping other kids. It really moved us.

“We’re getting married and we want to do something to help you guys,” she said.

Whatever money is raised from the wedding will go into a fund to provide either small scholarships or buy books for the volunteers, she promised.

“I know you get help with money the first year at university, but in the second it runs out, so maybe we can do something there,” Lau told the volunteers.

“There’s not a scholarship available that would recognize the hard work, energy, commitment and generosity of what you are doing.”

Zabkar said they intend to continue to help student volunteers.

“The wedding is a starting point, but we’d be thrilled if other couples would consider doing this or if a corporate sponsor would come forward and match what we raise,” Zabkar said.

gbellett@vancouversun.com

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