December 10, 2012

Adopt-a-School: For many kids, spring break is no fun #vansunkids

By Daphne Bramham

Spring break for many kids means a trip to Disneyland or Whistler or going to one of the many kid-friendly attractions around the city, whether it’s bowling or Science World.

But for others, it’s a lonely, scary and often hungry time.

“School is the centre of the universe for many children and youth,” says Gerhard Maynard, executive director of KidSafe. “For vulnerable children and youth in particular, school is often the safest place in their lives and the place they count on to provide their daily meals.”

In the inner-city schools served by KidSafe, the number of families living on social assistance is as high as 60 per cent, which means parents have no money left for child care when school’s not in. Compounding the problems for families living at or near the poverty line was the school board’s decision to double spring break to two weeks from one.

That’s why it will cost twice as much this year for KidSafe to run its 20-year-old spring break program. It provides more than just a safe place to go. There are recreational activities, breakfast and lunch as well as a trained staff of counsellors.

One child in last year’s program had witnessed a parent being murdered. A couple of other children were not only grieving the death of a parent, the loss also meant the dual-income family’s income was cut in half.

Others as young as nine would otherwise have spent the break caring for one, two or three younger siblings while their parents worked. Still others would most likely have been hanging around the streets and malls; easy prey for drug dealers, gang members and pimps.

As Maynard says, for many poor kids, the best-case scenario during school breaks is that they’ll spend two weeks watching TV.

“There’s a lot of stigmatizing of parents who are accused of neglecting their kids,” he says. “But most are just trying to do their best and that often means working more than one job. But besides that, a lot are refugee families who were traumatized before coming to Canada and are now struggling to fit in here and find jobs.”

This year, KidSafe plans to keep the doors open at five inner-city schools in Vancouver from March 18 to 29 and serve the needs of 300 kids from six schools. The children are referred by teachers, principals and family support workers and will come from Queen Alexandra, Sir William Macdonald, Admiral Seymour, Mount Pleasant, Florence Nightingale and Grandview elementary schools.

The goal is to provide 21,000 hours of programming, support and 6,000 meals to children aged five to 13. There will be sports, recreational and educational activities at the schools as well as field trips to places such as Science World, Maplewood Farm, Grouse Mountain, the Vancouver Aquarium, the Vancouver Art Gallery and others.

The reasons KidSafe targets kids aged five to 13 is that they are at a key developmental stage in their lives. Research done by UBC’s early learning partnership has found that the middle childhood years (ages six to 13) mark an important transitional period from childhood to adolescence. The research suggests this is a unique period when with positive influences can make a huge difference to a child reaching their physical, socio-economic and cognitive potential.

Those influences include supportive relationships with adults, a sense of belonging, rewarding experiences, meaningful activity and, of course, good nutrition and proper exercise.

To provide all of those, KidSafe operates with 54 paid staff and 40 volunteers coming mainly from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southcoast BC and the YMCA of Greater Vancouver.

All of that doesn’t come cheap. The program costs a lot — $93,008.67, to be exact.

The Vancouver school board supports KidSafe by providing the space at no cost plus $6,167 in cash. Already this year, corporations and foundations have provided $31,750.

Still, that leaves KidSafe short by more than $55,000, which is why KidSafe has come back to Adopt-a-School for a second year with a request for $5,000.

Here’s a cascading look at some of the costs: $51,000 for salaries for the activity leaders, food coordinators, bus drivers, site supervisors and child support workers; $8,455 in operational costs; $7,035 for food; $5,925 for transportation for field trips; $3,465 for admission to places such as the art gallery or the aquarium.

But it’s worth it. What KidSafe has found over the years is that when spring break ends, the children go back to school.

After several years with KidSafe after working with Arts Umbrella, Maynard is pretty calm about how much money still needs to be raised for spring break. That’s possibly because he’s more concerned that KidSafe may not get enough toy donations before Christmas.

For the past 20 years, it has also distributed donated toys to children in the six inner-city schools. It needs new and gently used toys and books for children aged five to 13. To ensure there aren’t gaps in what it is able to give, KidSafe asks that all toys and books be in the $20 range.

Contributions can be made at KidSafe’s office at Queen Alexandra School at 1300 East Broadway. But KidSafe will even send volunteers to collect donations from offices and large complexes with more than a couple of stuffed bears if you call and ask for help.

“People do step up,” says Maynard.

And they should. After all, this is a season dedicated to the ideals of faith, hope and charity.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

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