November 24, 2012
Adopt-a-School: CIBC Wood Gundy delivers philanthropy without fanfare for inner-city schools
By Gerry Bellett
It almost defies belief that a downtown office of just 55 people has been the prime provider of hot breakfasts and other services for poor and needy children in Vancouver’s east-side elementary schools for the past 17 years.
Since 1995, staff in CIBC Wood Gundy’s office in the Bentall Centre have put $2.8 million into services for impoverished children, services not covered by the Vancouver school board’s budget.
They have carried much of the weight of the school district’s hot breakfast program and have fed thousands upon thousands of children.
Each school day, close to 700 children in seven schools receive breakfast either totally or partly paid for by this one office.
These investment advisers also pay for counselling for troubled children and for preschool programs for immigrant or poor children.
They support in-school anti-gang and anti-prostitution programs by the Vancouver police’s Odd Squad; are among the major donors to the KidSafe after-school security program; and support a Big Brother mentoring service by University of B.C. medical students for inner-city schoolchildren.
As corporate philanthropy goes, it’s without peer.
It has also been without fanfare.
“I guess we’ve been kind of Canadian about it,” says Jeff Watchorn when asked why the office has kept out of the limelight.
“We’ve kept it under the radar and just done it our own way. It’s not something we wanted to broadcast. We’ve just been happy to do it quietly,” said Watchorn, making it sound like an apology.
But the Adopt-a-School campaign has flushed them out, as it’s hard to talk to principals and teachers in east Vancouver without their name coming up.
They have become the gold standard for corporate giving and tenacity in supporting social programs, said Margaret Jorgensen, principal of Lord Strathcona elementary on East Pender.
Her school and Admiral Seymour elementary on Keefer were the first to receive help from CIBC Wood Gundy, and over the years Strathcona — located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside with all that implies — has been the major recipient of their fundraising.
“How can I describe what they have done for us and for other inner-city schools?” said Jorgensen. “Phenomenal, just phenomenal. There would not have been a breakfast program without them.”
Over the years, CIBC Wood Gundy has also put money into breakfast programs in Britannia, Grandview and Mount Pleasant elementary schools, joining with other donors in feeding children.
This year they will add two more to the list — Norquay and Carleton — making a total of seven inner-city schools now under their wing.
Jennifer Cook, who runs the Vancouver school board’s food services department, said: “CIBC Wood Gundy have made an extraordinary contribution and have enabled the continuation of the breakfast program over the years.”
Cook said a number of schools were in danger of losing breakfast because donations weren’t covering the staffing and food costs.
“Jeff had told me to let him know if there were problems because he didn’t want to see any children go without,” said Cook.
(The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund in partnership with the David Sidoo Foundation has committed to covering any shortfall for the 2013-14 school year to ensure none is lost.)
The key to CIBC Wood Gundy’s giving is Miracle Day — the first Wednesday in December — when the Bentall office donates what has been collectively earned that day, a sum matched by the company.
Watchorn, an investment adviser, estimates this year’s Miracle Day, which falls on Dec. 5, will raise about $100,000.
“We’re really fortunate that we have a great partnership with the Boston Pizza Foundation and the owners Jim Treliving and George Melville. Along with them and with Miracle Day we’re able to raise the money,” he said.
Wood Gundy’s philanthropy initially concentrated on providing breakfast for Seymour and Strathcona children.
“The guys who started this wanted to do something that would have the most impact and they found there were children coming to school in east Vancouver who hadn’t eaten breakfast,” Watchorn said.
“When you see those kids it just breaks your heart. I can tell you there’re people in this office very passionate about feeding these kids. You can’t help thinking, ‘Is the food they get at school all they’re going to eat today?’ And you realize just how important this is.”
But breakfast is only one need. Impoverished children face other challenges, a realization that led CIBC Wood Gundy into a deeper and richer role in children’s lives.
“We decided to build our charitable giving around what it takes to look after a child for a day,” he said.
“So we start with the Hippy Canada Preschool Preparedness Program which helps families struggling with literacy and poverty get their children ready for kindergarten. It gives them a leg up in school.
“Now the kids are in school what do they need? Well, the first thing if they are hungry you have to feed them, so that’s the hot breakfast program. Then what if a child has problems and needs to talk to someone? That’s why we support the RSVP counselling service.
“Then there are all the problems kids face in their neighbourhoods where there’re people trying to recruit them into gangs, into drug taking and prostitution. So we support the Vancouver police’s Odd Squad who try to keep the kids off the streets.
“This all leads to looking after kids when school’s finished for the day or closed for the holidays, which is why we support KidSafe (founded by The Vancouver Sun) which gives children a safe place to stay and feeds and cares for them during times when they would be at risk if left on the streets,” he said.
(For the KidSafe charity golf tournament, CIBC Wood Gundy has committed to matching funds raised by the tournament to a limit of $45,000.)
Despite all the office has achieved, Watchorn remains on edge.
“My No. 1 stress running through all of this is: how do we keep it going? Can you imagine what would happen if we couldn’t raise the money to feed kids?
“The kids are on a treadmill because they’re hungry and there’s nothing they can do about it and it’s not going away. And we’re on a treadmill to keep this going, too.
“It’s a huge pressure. I worry all the time.”