December 20, 2012

Adopt-A-School: Forsaken children find a new beginning #vansunkids

By Daphne Bramham

Every child matters even when they’re in high school and on the cusp of becoming adults.

There’s this assumption that somehow big kids don’t need as much as little ones. But that’s so entirely wrong.

Kids who needed hot breakfast and lunch programs from kindergarten to Grade 8 don’t stop needing them when they go to high school.

And, as they grow and change, they have other basic needs, which provide more barriers to learning.

What is shocking is that there are girls in Metro Vancouver who don’t go to school four or five days a month because they can’t afford menstrual supplies.

I hadn’t imagined this was a problem here. Africa, Asia, yes. But Metro Vancouver?

Can you imagine being a 13-year-old girl and having to tell a teacher or counsellor that’s why you can’t come to school?

I learned of this when I visited the nascent Suwa’lkh Learning Centre in Coquitlam. It is a tribute to the staff that the girls there trust them enough to overcome their embarrassment and explain the problem.

Because the staff were made aware of the problem, Lunapads’ owners Suzanne Siemens and Madeleine Shaw stepped forward and are providing the girls with washable and reusable menstrual supplies.

Still, their need is another indicator of the depth of the poverty in Metro Vancouver.

It’s not just aboriginal girls or the girls at Suwa’lkh who face this problem, says counsellor Tanya Walton and Malcolm Key, the Coquitlam school district’s aboriginal program coordinator. They can’t say how widespread the problem is because so few girls will admit to it.

The 38 students at Suwa’lkh are among the most vulnerable kids in Canada. They are poor and almost all are aboriginal. Yet they consider themselves lucky.

They are well-loved, protected and cared for by the extraordinary teachers and staff at Suwa’lkh and by Laurie Ebenal, the Coquitlam school district’s principal of aboriginal education, who virtually willed the school into existence this fall after the success of a pilot project last year.

The students here are the forsaken.

“These kids have been herded through the system,” says Key. “We have kids who are reading at a Grade 4 level.”

Most live in abject poverty without enough money for adequate food and clothing. Some have limited access to laundry facilities.

According to Key, about a third are caregivers for their parents and often for siblings as well.

Some have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome; others may have it, but haven’t been diagnosed. There is a higher than usual percentage of kids with attention deficit disorder.

Two-thirds of the students are on specialized learning plans. In regular schools, there is a limit of four specialized learning students in each classroom.

Many have been failing in school for so long that they had all but given up.

Ebenal, Key and the teachers here refuse to give up on them.

“When they’re not in school, these kids are wandering the streets,” says Key. “A few of the girls we are working with are 15 and they are hanging around with 30-year-old men. Those men are predators.”

The girls may be prime targets for pimps; the boys may be targets for gang recruitment — just down the street from the school is a Hell’s Angels clubhouse.

One girl tells me that last year she went to class so rarely that she didn’t get any marks at all. This year, she’s getting A’s and B’s in Grade 9 and plans to go to college after graduating.

Another girl, Michelle, is one of the school’s leaders. She’ll graduate from Grade 12 this year, accepting her Dogwood Certificate in front of the longhouse facade that takes up one wall of one of the school’s four classrooms.

On the day I visited Suwa’lkh, she was writing a scholarship application for Douglas College’s aboriginal youth worker program.

Each week at the learning centre officially begins Monday at 10 a.m., when students and staff gather in a circle and share their thoughts.

This past Monday, Ebenal asked them to describe their experience at Suwa’lkh. She began by saying that for her it’s been “like birthing a baby, a journey” that she’s on because she cares so much about each one of them.

As an eagle feather was passed from hand to hand, the responses were mainly single words or phrases: “Caring,” “like a big family,” “opportunity,” “safe,” “accepting,” a “new beginning” (which is what Suwa’lkh means in Hul’quim’num).

“It’s like a home away from home,” said one student.

“We’re all treated as equals,” said another.

“It’s an awesome place to be and to learn.”

What changes would they like? Ebenal asked.

“I’d like more children and more people to come here and see what this school means to us,” said one student.

The other wishes ranged from new strings for the well-used guitar to more food and a bigger, better kitchen to science lab equipment “like a regular school” to a new bus.

That only scratches the surface of what this school and these students need.

They need a breakfast and lunch program.

By some miracle reminiscent of the biblical loaves and fishes parable, Ebenal says they provide 20 kids a day, five days a week, with something for breakfast and lunch at a cost of $500 a month.

Starbucks donates baked goods. A local church provides some food. The rest, she suspects, the teachers buy with their own money.

The second-hand kitchen appliances were supplied by Ebenal.

With a fully equipped kitchen, not only would food preparation be easier, it could be used as a classroom where kids could earn their Food Safe certification, which would help them get jobs.

If they had a washer and dryer, the kids wouldn’t have to come to school in dirty clothes or stay home because they have no clean ones.

They need basic teaching aids.

Aside from a few, second-hand microscopes, a couple of old computers and science teacher Shawn O’Brien’s own laptop, the science room has no equipment.

Most of O’Brien’s teaching focuses on the outdoors. By another small miracle, Ebenal found money to buy a used, 15-seat school bus and money for two teachers to get their bus driver’s licenses and their certification to teach canoeing.

Already this year, the students have canoed on Buntzen Lake, hiked at Golden Ears and watched eagles in the Fraser Valley. But he’d like to take them rock climbing. He’d like them to be able to play lacrosse. He’d like to have an outdoor classroom and a garden where they and their families could learn to grow their own food.

Even only after a few months, these forsaken kids have changed.

“These kids who were non-attenders are now coming to school,” says O’Brien. “The learning will come once they feel safe and have trust in us.”

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