November 26, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Colliers stepped up to help fill empty bellies
By Gerry Bellett
The last sausage disappeared just before 9 a.m., carried off in triumph by a Grade Sixer as the last of things usually are by kids for whom being either the first or the last in anything produces its own magic.
That the solitary sausage was there at all was thanks to Colliers International and the Vancouver commercial real estate company’s decision to adopt Hastings Elementary on Franklin Street just north of East Hastings.
The school’s breakfast program – which on this wet, fall morning had fed 70 children – has been held together these past few years by the Breakfast Club of Canada and the Vancouver school board.
But it was in jeopardy, says principal Donna Emeno.
“Each year, with budget cuts, the ability to continue the breakfast program was getting less and less and with everything being so tight financially, well …” The story is often in the pauses.
That “well” was a long one and compressed in the silence that followed was the fate of an indispensable service for families struggling with poverty and how close it came to vanishing.
“So Colliers stepped up with The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School and it’s been amazing,” said Emeno.
Colliers’ decision to join the 2011 Adopt-a-School campaign was championed by senior vice-president Colin Scarlett and last winter the company raised $12,500, which was matched by The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund.
Scarlett said the company wants to do more than just provide breakfast.
“We really wanted to adopt the school,” said Scarlett.
And they did. Apart from feeding hundreds of hungry kids from March to June, and now through this fall, Colliers staff have been working in the school serving breakfast or helping teachers in classrooms.
They have held a book drive, provided furniture from their Vancouver office for staff and student areas at the school, raised money to allow Grade 7s a field trip complete with a boxed lunch courtesy of Choices Markets, brought in various supplies such as bed linen and blankets for families and were instrumental in introducing volunteers from St. George’s School to run a basketball program.
“It’s all come from our employees, their families, friends of Colliers and even our clients,” said Scarlett.
“It’s the ripple effect that surprised me most. It was not just that we surpassed the money I thought we’d raise but it’s been the amount of time people have given,” said Scarlett.
And the giving has brought its own reward, said Scarlett.
“I just can’t tell you how incredible it feels to see what a difference this is making. It’s been a wonderful experience for all of us and we’re so grateful for the opportunity,” said Scarlett.
Three Colliers volunteers – Jacqueline Sayaphet, Melissa Vergara and Teegan Tsuchiya – were on hand this morning helping in the kitchen and serving.
“When we asked for volunteers these three put up their hands the highest,” said Scarlett, whose job that day was dispensing the sausages which, along with toasted bagels, cream cheese and jam, half a pear and a carton of milk, filled out the menu.
Tsuchiya was a special education teaching assistant before she got into real estate.
“I miss working with kids so I was keen to jump at the opportunity to help,” said Tsuchiya, who is at the school every Tuesday and after her spell in the kitchen works either with the kindergarten class or Grade 2 before going off to work.
“It’s nice to give back to the community and the kids appreciate it.”
That they do. Some wave and call back their thankyous as they leave for class.
And it’s not just the kids who are hungry, says Scarlett. Some days it’s obvious a few parents haven’t eaten, either.
“One morning, there was a mom just staring at the food and I asked if she’d like something to eat. She said no, she didn’t think people would like it if she did. And I said ‘I’m paying for this. If you’re hungry, just take what you want.'”
The spectre of shared hunger was there this morning, too, with a mom and child quietly sharing breakfast – the child seated on a bench, her mom standing behind eating the remains of a bagel.
Last year’s Adopt-a-School campaign provided $1,200 which Emeno was able to use for emergency food vouchers for families finding themselves out of money with no food in the house.
(It was also used to buy plastic containers for families to protect clothes and bedding from bedbugs.)
“That money’s just about all gone,” said Emeno, rooting around in a drawer to find the few remaining vouchers which provide desperate mothers with $25 certificates for a nearby supermarket.
Poverty and its effects haven’t disappeared since last year and the 2012 Adopt-a-School campaign will be relied upon to keep the breakfast program going for the remainder of the school year and relieve the increasing strain on the school to provide emergency food money, said Emeno.
“Everyone realizes that their dollar isn’t going very far any more. People who had not needed support in the past are now asking for it, whether it’s help to pay for field trips they can’t afford or food cards – we’re definitely seeing more of it,” she said.