November 15, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Wishing Tree finally starts to deliver
When they painted the Wishing Tree in the main hall of Queen Alexandra elementary school some years ago it was for children to place wishes in the foliage as if affixing their heart’s desires to a mural might somehow create its own magic.
Improbable as it sounds, it seems to have worked, although not in the way anyone at the time imagined.
“There are wishes on the tree for world peace and to have no hunger in the world,” said teacher Jamine Hickman.
But there are also more personal wishes from children seeking things for themselves or their families as if trying to wish away the effects of poverty in their lives, she said.
Well, thanks to the Vancouver and District Labour Council and The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign the Wishing Tree is going to deliver – not world peace, unfortunately – but some help for families struggling with poverty.
The Wishing Tree’s trunk covers a small doorway in the main hall – easily overlooked even if it wasn’t obscured by a mural – that was once the entrance to the vice-principal’s office but has long since been used as a store room.
Now the room has been converted into an in-school community store, the only one of its kind in B.C., where families in need will be able to get emergency access to food, clothing, hygiene supplies or such things as transit tickets. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said principal Cheryl Matthews.
“We have been distributing supermarket food vouchers to needy families but one of the problems is those families often don’t have the money for transit to get to the stores. This way they can come here when they bring their kids to school and discreetly get what they need.”
“We will have basic, non-perishable food supplies, things like soaps and hygiene items such as lice shampoos and combs, which are expensive. We’ll have boots and rainwear for kids because some come to school and aren’t dressed for the weather. If they were to go out to play in the rain they’d come in soaked, so we want to prevent that.
“We’ll try our best to give parents what they need,” said Matthews.
As wonderful as the concept is, there’s no escaping that a school in the middle of Vancouver finds it necessary to resort to such extraordinary means to alleviate what – for its teachers and principal – is intolerable poverty.
It was poverty that first attracted the attention of the labour council to the school 18 years ago.
“When we first went there it was to introduce some of the families to what Vancouver has to offer,” said labour council president Joey Hartman.
“We wanted to take them to parks and other facilities because many of them didn’t have the resources to get out of their own four walls and see what was in the community,” said Hartman.
It wasn’t long before labour council volunteers realized that hunger was an even more immediate need.
“Kids were getting dropped off early at the school because parents needed to get to work. They couldn’t stay outside and they needed food to get them through the day because they were hungry. The principal at the time wanted to feed them and so we decided to raise money for a breakfast program,” she said.
Since then the labour council has provided breakfast to thousands of kids at the school at a cost of about $150,000 in donations, an act of social justice quietly done.
But this year the fortunes of Queen Alexandra have improved, thanks to The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a School campaign and the generosity of donors such as private investment banker David Sidoo and his wife, Manjy, who came forward to relieve some of the strain on the labour council.
This year breakfast at the school is being provided by the Sidoo Family Foundation as the result of a $10,000 donation – matched by The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund in 2011 – leaving the labour council to fund the Wishing Tree store with the $11,000 it raised at its annual dinner for delegates on March 23.
(The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund matched this $11,000 donation. In addition the Children’s Fund also granted the school $15,000 for other anti-poverty initiatives in 2011.)
In the last couple of years Hartman had detected some signs of donor fatigue among delegates of the council’s 115 member unions.
“Normally we’d raise $9,000 to $10,000, but last year it dropped to $6,000 . This year Adopt-a-School was able to infuse energy back into the campaign and we were able to raise $11,000, which was delightful,” she said.
The school had asked the labour council if it would be willing to shift its attention to the Wishing Tree store.
“They came up with the idea of a small community store, which we really like because to get into it you have to go through the Wishing Tree and up half a set of stairs, which is like going into an attic. Parents will be able to receive for free, or at minimal cost, the essentials they need for their families. I’ve never heard of anything like it before,” said Hartman.
As for the breakfast program that, too, is being upgraded.
With the extra money, Matthews said there will be more variety of food and more protein on the menu.
“It’s been mostly toast, cereal, granola and fruit but we’ll be able to add eggs, yogurt and milk and we’ll now be able to extend it to family members,” she said.
The school has 185 students, of which about 70 come each day for breakfast.
But there are hungry parents, guardians and siblings, too, and the school has been unable to feed until now.
“They shouldn’t be left hungry. With parents and siblings we’ll be up to about 100 breakfasts a day,” said Matthews.
“Without the help of the labour council, The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School and the Sidoo family we’d never to able to do all this.”