December 22, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Britannia’s needs are elementary #vansunkids
By Gerry Bellett
It’s an unpalatable fact likely to upset middle class sensibilities, but affairs are so dire at Britannia elementary when it comes to clothing its needy children that used underwear is gratefully accepted.
“Yes, as long as it’s washed and clean we’ll take it,” said Jim Lemoine, the school’s neighbourhood staff assistant, who acts as the liaison between the school, children and parents.
And this week as the first snowstorm of the season hit, the need for clothes — from used underwear to overcoats — was only accentuated.
Snow was in the streets and, just before class, principal Ian Cannon was walking down the hall when he saw a mom waiting outside a bathroom. Inside, her son was trying to dry himself as his clothes were soaked from slipping in the slush.
A short conversation with the mom resulted in the boy being outfitted with dry clothes from the dwindling supply Lemoine has stored in a cupboard.
An hour later, Cannon walked into a kindergarten class; the child saw him and, ignoring all else, sprang up and came running.
“Feeling better?” asked Cannon as the boy showed off his new clothes.
Britannia Elementary is part of the large complex of schools and recreation facilities on Cotton Avenue between Commercial and Clark, in a neighbourhood where some residents are desperately poor.
Lemoine came here from Lord Nelson elementary, another east Vancouver school. It’s not a million miles away, yet he’s seen more privation in a year among the 192 children here than in the 16 years he spent there.
“Last week, a mother came and showed me her daughter’s runners. The whole side was missing from one shoe but I didn’t have a pair to give her,” Lemoine said.
Britannia has been receiving some help, notably from two West Vancouver elementary schools: Westbay and Cypress Park. Last week, a delegation from the schools arrived with boxes of donated winter clothes; this week, those clothes were being worn by children coming to school.
“Their timing was fantastic,” said Cannon.
Still, Lemoine’s just about out of clothes.
“I brought in a couple of bags that my wife gathered up from our kids and laid them out on the counter and they were gone,” he said.
“Our school secretary came in with bags of clothes, same thing. Put them on the counter and they’re gone.”
On Jan. 24, the Surrey-based Clothes Upfront has promised to bring a trailer full of clean, used clothing to the school. The organization couldn’t make the delivery before Christmas as they are booked up.
“We’ve had them here three times last year. One day they counted 93 people who came through looking for clothes and that didn’t include children,” said Lemoine.
“When they come in they’ll fill the gym with clothes. We’re going to invite Macdonald and Grandview (two inner city schools in the area) to share in this. Whatever they bring will be gone.”
It was a school trip to Mount Seymour last winter — shortly after he arrived — that showed Lemoine what poverty here looks like.
“We were up there in the cold and I saw one of the kids was wearing only shorts. It was winter. It was so cold I had two pairs of pants on so I took off one pair and gave them to him.”
The school has applied to The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund for $15,000 for a variety of needs.
Among other things, Britannia is running out of money to pay for a therapist to treat children who, from a variety of causes, have been traumatized.
“It could be from loss in the family, illness, whatever — it’s a wonderful service and we need it to be continued. We need to help these kids cope with what they have been through so they are able to function at school,” said Cannon.
But they are $2,000 short of what they need to have treatment continue to the end of the school year.
It’s not just clothing they are lacking at Britannia. The small amount of emergency food money Cannon and Lemoine have accumulated from donations from the two West Vancouver schools and Foresters Life Insurance is all but depleted.
For Cannon and Lemoine, there’s no question that parents who plead for food for their children are in any way responsible for their predicament.
“These are families that try their best but there is real poverty here — parents without jobs, on social welfare, or under-employed. And at the end of the month, when the bills are due and the rent needs paying, sometimes they need extra help,” said Cannon.
“We try our best to help families provide for their children so the children can focus on school and not have to worry about issues of food or clothing.”
But the demand for food from parents and children is unceasing.
So it’s particularly hard for Lemoine to contemplate the loss of a major supply of donated bread and baked goods now that the bakery supplying them has moved from Burnaby to Delta. The delivery a week ago was the last.
Lemoine still receives up to three bags of bread and muffins twice a month from Uprising Bread on Venables, but the donations from the Burnaby bakery were his major source.
“We’d get 20 to 30 boxes of very good bread and baked goods and I’d put it out in the afternoon and in no time it’s gone. But it’s too far for them to drive now.
“It’s going to be a big hole in January now we’ve lost this,” said Lemoine. “So now I’ve got no food and no money to buy it.”
Last Monday, the effect of that unpleasant predicament presented itself.
“I was just ready to go home and a kid comes up and asks me for food. He was hungry and I didn’t have anything to give him and I had to say no,” said Lemoine.
“That kid might not have anything to eat until he comes back to school next morning. And so I have to drive home thinking about that. It just kills me having to say no.”