November 13, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Teacher Carrie Gelson says next step, looking beyond immediate needs of poor kids
By Janet Steffenhagen
The staggering generosity of strangers was transformative for a little school near the Downtown Eastside last year, but the teacher who triggered that outpouring with an open letter to the people of Vancouver on behalf of her impoverished students isn’t resting easy.
Carrie Gelson doesn’t need more socks or shoes for her young charges at Seymour elementary. She received crates of those during the last school year, along with such quantities of children’s sweaters, coats, jackets, pants and boots that they filled a school storage room to overflowing.
Nor does she need more snacks for kids who come to school hungry because her cupboards are now well stocked with granola bars, crackers and juice boxes. The library has an array of beautiful new books, and many of the volunteers who stepped forward last year to help the teaching staff still attend regularly, often bringing boxes of freshly baked goods for everyone.
“It was a magical year,” a smiling Gelson said as she recalled the donations of money and goods that began arriving immediately after The Vancouver Sun published a story about her letter in September 2011 and still haven’t stopped. She also has fond memories of many remarkable field trips that the students in her school enjoyed last year thanks to the altruism of individuals, companies and other Metro schools.
They canoed on Burnaby Lake, paddled dragon boats on False Creek and tramped through snow atop Seymour Mountain.
But Gelson, who teaches Grades 2 and 3, still worries about her students because she knows the spirit of giving doesn’t always last, and inner-city children — especially those living in poverty — need more than one year of magic.
“I could tell you six hours of oh-my-god happy stories,” she enthused recently during a rare quiet moment in her busy classroom. “And that’s part of the story . . . . But if we only talk about that, it’s not fair because it ties everything up in a bow for people and they’ll think it’s all OK, but it’s not all OK.
“What I have one year later is access to a lot more things to meet immediate needs. I’ve got socks, underwear and snacks (for the children) and that impacts everything. But it (charity) is like catching a butterfly. It’s fragile and it’s temporary.”
Gelson has a message this year that extends beyond immediate needs. So, too, did her letter last year, but most attention was captured by her description of children who were hungry, lacked socks and had holes in their shoes. Some people have called her “the sock lady” which causes her to bristle and point out that her concern has always been about much more than socks and shoes.
“Are you willing to put your time and/or your money toward affecting change?” she asked in her 2011 letter. “Will you advocate for a child that is not your own?”
For Gelson, a teacher at Seymour since 1995, that question lingers. While the situation inside her school has improved greatly — and she stresses time and again how grateful she is for every donation — she notes little has changed outside the school grounds. Kids still come to school hungry and often tired because prank fire alarms in their housing complex wake them in early morning hours; a few are unable to concentrate because they’re covered with bedbug bites.
There are days when children cry in her arms, refuse to eat or hide in a corner.
“Some of the stuff they say would break your heart,” she sighed.
So this year, she hopes public generosity will be accompanied by activism, especially in the lead up to the May provincial election, to force politicians to get serious about child poverty. Knowing that suggestion will make some people uncomfortable, Gelson is quick to explain that her call for activism could be as simple as writing a letter or making a phone call.
“We just have to agree collectively to make different demands of government and school boards. To push them, because these kids are worth it.”
Her letter, which touched so many hearts and led to the creation of The Sun’s Adopt-a-School program to help inner-city schools, also sparked a debate among some of Gelson’s colleagues about whether schools should be begging for handouts. The public education system is not a charity, one inner-city teacher wrote recently, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Charitable donations won’t fix what’s wrong in her classrooms, the teacher stated, adding that what she needs most is sufficient, sustained funding, only possible through taxation.
Gelson concurs, but the debate makes her squirm.
She’s worried about offending the many donors who have been generous with their time and money and who she thinks could be powerful allies in the fight against poverty. She wants everyone to know that every contribution to her school has made an important difference for her students.
She rejects the idea that people must choose one camp or the other: Refuse charity and insist on government action or accept charity and keep quiet. While she agrees government must do more, she said she won’t take a stand that ignores what she sees every day in her classroom.
“I’m not about to reject charity while there is need,” she said. “I deal with the kids in front of me, and I will do whatever I can. I won’t even think twice about it. I love these kids,” she said, her eyes tearing up briefly.
Long after the interview ended, she sent an email, saying: “I am not on any side except the side that cares about kids and families. What I really want is for life to be better for my students and other students like them.”
Some still wonder why her letter had such a profound impact in a community that’s been told many times through official reports, conferences, news releases and statistics about high poverty rates in B.C. and the devastating effect on children.
Yet, a number of those who responded to Gelson’s letter said they were unaware such need existed in Metro schools.
Gelson, eloquent and charismatic, said it comes down to the power of storytelling. Reports are easily shelved and forgotten, but stories from the heart about the children “get under the skin,” she said.
Even more so for those who visited Seymour, met the students and stayed to help out.
“It’s understanding,” she said. “It’s putting that little face to the situation. But I need (visitors) to come more than once because there’s a lot of joy here and you leave walking on air. But, if you come back a number of times, in among that joy you see the need.”
For a teacher, the lessons taught are everything, and sometimes they hit home.
Last month, after Gelson spoke at an awards ceremony that recognized her exceptional commitment to children, the audience was asked if anyone had questions.
Her shy 10-year-old son — one of her twins — surprised everyone by getting to his feet.
He, too, had a message.
“This is about before the letter,” he began, as Gelson held her breath wondering what he was going to say. “I went into my Mom’s room because I wanted computer time and she said ‘no’ because she was writing something that could change people’s lives. And I think it has.”