November 23, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Zajac Ranch introduces inner-city kids to the great outdoors
By Gerry Bellett
There they were, 27 Downtown Eastside kids standing in the wilderness near Stave Lake trying to comprehend it all.
The Zajac Ranch — essentially a large clearing among the trees — is at the end of a logging road with potholes and one-vehicle bridges well north of Mission.
And for these children-of-the-concrete, being so deep in the forest was clearly perplexing.
“Many of them have never seen this before. They’ve never been outside the city,” said teacher Carrie Gelson of the Grade 4 to 7 students from Vancouver’s Admiral Seymour elementary, standing under the trees as the bus that had brought them from Keefer Street and its troubled environs started back to civilization.
For one student, though, the forest brought enlightenment.
“When we were coming down that bumpety, bumpety road among all those green and mossy trees, a girl who’s part of my book club said, ‘Oh Miss Gelson this is just like Alabama Moon.’ That’s the book we’ve been reading. It’s about a boy (Moon Blake) and his father who live off the land in a forest.
“She said, ‘I wish I had the book with me so I could read parts in it and think what Moon would be doing to find food, what he’d be thinking, where the waterfall is … I could see him in the trees.’”
For Gelson, the beauty of the moment spoke for itself.
Her confrere Andrea Wilks experienced another when a fully loaded logging truck obligingly appeared around a bend in the road, allowing the students a good view of an iconic symbol of British Columbia industry.
“They’ve read about logging trucks, but it means nothing until they actually see one filled with huge logs like that. Right there was why it’s important to give these kids the experience. These are the teachable moments they must have,” said Wilks.
Unfortunately, many parents whose children attend inner-city schools such as Seymour don’t have the money to buy such experiences for them.
“They just can’t stump up the $250 it costs to go to camp,” said Wilks.
The reason she and Gelson and their 27 pupils were there earlier this year was the generosity of the Mel Jr. & Marty Zajac Foundation, which invited them to the ranch created by the Zajac family as a summer camp for children with serious illnesses or disabilities.
Carmen Zajac was there to welcome them.
She said the invitation was prompted by a story in The Vancouver Sun in the fall of 2011 in which Gelson pleaded for help for her inner-city students.
The response to Gelson’s plea — such as that of the Zajac family — was overwhelming and led The Sun to launch its Adopt-a-School project, which last year raised more than $600,000 for various inner-city schools. The money was used to set up breakfast programs, to buy classroom technology, and to provide field trips and emergency food vouchers and transit passes for impoverished families.
“When we saw that story in The Sun, we knew we had to do something,” said Zajac.
Other donors who stepped in to help bring the Seymour kids to the ranch were Vancity Credit Union and Thirdwave Bus Services of Richmond, which provided transportation.
It’s not the first time Wilks has brought inner-city kids to the great outdoors.
Some years ago, when she was teaching in New York’s South Bronx, she took her students on field trips to the equivalent of the Zajac Ranch in Vermont.
“When the Bronx kids got there, one stood on the soil and asked ‘Why is the cement so soft here?’ At moments like that, you realize what getting them out of the city means,” said Wilks.
Four years ago, Wilks decided to take 15 Seymour students to that same Vermont ranch.
She went door-to-door through Yaletown asking businesses for help, either by direct donation or supplying items for a silent auction.
“I had about 100 family and friends and we had a silent auction and cocktail evening. I sold tickets and with the auction raised $13,000,” said Wilks.
That put them all on a plane to Vermont.
The Zajac Ranch gave them three days of outdoor activities, playing with animals in its small petting zoo, riding horses, archery lessons, hikes in the forest, skipping stones on the lake — “I’m not sure if some saw it as a lake or an ocean” observed Wilks — and campfires and singsongs at night.
Getting them all to sleep at night was difficult, said Wilks, as the kids were too stimulated by their surroundings and activities to just drop off.
“These kids go to sleep at home with the sounds of squealing tires and sirens at night but here all they could hear were the frogs. But we never saw one until the morning we were leaving.
“All the kids just crowded around looking at it.” On the bus home, most of them fell asleep.