December 1, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Moms get their hands dirty to help out
By Gerry Bellett
Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald has had thousands of conversations with children in the Downtown Eastside during her career as a developmental pediatrician and the context is generally as grim and bleak as poverty itself.
But the conversation some weeks ago with a six-year-old who eyed her fearfully in a small office in Seymour Elementary caught her by surprise.
“He was sitting in the chair you’re sitting in and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘I don’t want to get sold,’” said Fitzgerald. “In all my years of dealing with children, I’ve never had a child say ‘don’t sell me.’
“I said to him. ‘I’m not going to sell you — no one is going to sell you, ever.’ It nearly broke my heart. Can you imagine trying to learn to read when you’re six and you’ve got that fear in your head?”
The child’s dilemma was simple.
He was in the care of a grandfather he loved, but his grandfather was poor and sick and struggling, and social services were rightly concerned he could not look after the boy and were considering placing him in a foster home, she said.
“In his little mind, being sold is what happens when social workers come in and I guess to him I looked like one. So I was going to take him away from his grandfather and sell him.”
As a pediatrician and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Fitzgerald represented the medical profession in that small room with that small child, but when it comes to solving social problems, medicine’s reach is limited.
However, as founder and president of the Mom to Mom Child Poverty Initiative Society (M2M), there were avenues of help for the child not available to Fitzgerald, the clinician.
To save the child, the help had to go to his grandfather.
“Luckily, social services helped him find new accommodation and Mom to Mom stepped in and got all their other needs taken care of in terms of furniture and stuff,” she said.
The grandfather, his son and his grandson were living in a bachelor suite riddled with bedbugs and all their furniture, and what bedding they had, had to be thrown away.
On moving day, four volunteers from M2M arrived with a van. They furnished the apartment, gave everyone his own bed, gave the child new clothes and shoes to replace the ones with holes in the soles, filled the cupboards with food and, crucially, left their telephone numbers with the grandfather to call if he needed help.
“This isn’t about people from the west side delivering goodies to the east side. It’s more profound than that. Friendships are being formed. Two of our moms told the grandfather they were only a call away from coming in with food or taking the child to the library — caring about them without being perceived as a threat.
“They told the grandfather to tell social services he had all the help he needed to keep the boy. When they left, the grandpa was crying. He said he’d never received that degree of kindness in his whole life.”
M2M, whose members are mostly professional women living in Vancouver’s west side, was founded in October 2011 at the same time as The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a -School campaign was being created and last year the non-profit organization received grants from The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund to support its work.
Since then, M2M has grown. It has 26 moms acting as mentors and hundreds of people on email lists ready to help. It has set up a food-buying club at Grandview Elementary on Woodland Drive in East Vancouver, a sort of co-op to help families buy food at lower prices.
“Wholesale food is delivered to the school and for $10 parents and teachers, if they like, get two overflowing bags of fresh fruit and vegetables. If parents can’t afford to pay, they can donate an hour of their time packing the food. If they have no money, the club will give them the food.
“It’s self-sustaining needs, not charity, and it shows what people can do if they band together with their neighbour.”
M2M has its own moving fleet — a pickup truck cadged from a husband and the use of St. George’s School’s moving van for large loads.
Lisa MacFayden appears to be the chief wrangler and laughs when asked how many beds she’s delivered.
“My husband’s asked me the same thing. He asked because he’s seen all the wrappings lying around and he’s realized we’re buying sheets and bedding, too. We’re trying to do this under the radar.
“How many beds? At least 60 or 70. I’ve lost count.”
It’s not just beds and bedding; it’s couches, chairs, tables, dressers, lamps, utensils — everything from a juicer to steel-toed boots for a father who’s a roofer with an offer of work but can’t turn up without regulation boots.
There’s a constant flow of goods into the Downtown Eastside by M2M, multiple deliveries a week, mostly by MacFayden and her friends Denise Wade and Lesley Caruk.
This isn’t a realm for do-gooders — it’s too gritty a game for that — and MacFayden reduces it to its essentials when she says it’s simply mothers helping out mothers but that, too, is an understatement which does them credit.
Some months ago, a teacher in a Downtown Eastside school noticed a child was limping and when she pulled off her boot, she found a dead mouse inside.
It was at the height of the dispute with the government and teachers were on their work-to-rule campaign. But the discovery was so alarming that MacFayden was asked to call on the family.
No one was prepared for just how alarming it was.
“The mom was a refugee from the Sudan and spoke no English and had six children, three girls and three boys, two were infants. And it’s hard to describe how they lived,” said MacFayden. “It was nauseating.”
“They had a broken sofa and an old mattress which one of the boys slept on and what looked like a cushion from a lounger that all the girls slept on.”
MacFayden and company cobbled together some household items and went back that night while they waited for beds to arrive the next day.
They threw out the filthy cushion on which the three girls slept and placed a new mattress on the floor and covered it with clean sheets and bed coverings.
The next day they arrived with the beds and MacFayden pulled the covers off the mattress and found the sheets covered in countless mouse droppings.
“It was horrifying. The thought of those three little girls sleeping there with mice crawling over them all night — I went outside and was sick.”
As they assembled the children’s bed frames — supplied by a luxury hotel — MacFayden noticed the mom stroking the fine wooden headboard.
“She said something to her son and he said ‘My mother’s never had one of these. She wants to ask if she can get one.’ And I said ‘Yes, we’re bringing you one, too. A really nice one.’”
Poverty is just a word for those who have never seen what it can look like.
And MacFayden — for whom all this was new, too, a year ago — can’t forget the effect the sight made on two burly deliverymen who carried some heavy items into a home some weeks ago.
“The mom had just been diagnosed with cancer, the husband had left and she was living with an older son and a little girl and they all slept on one mattress. We had to throw everything in the house out. We’d amassed all this stuff and needed St. George’s truck to get it there,” said MacFayden.
“We had started bringing stuff in to the home and the women were setting up the beds for the kids and the mom and we noticed that after a couple of loads the men hadn’t come back. I thought they were taking a break so I went to the truck and they were in the back crying.
“I said ‘it’s OK, it’s OK, take a minute if you need it.’ What upset them was the realization of how poor people lived and how these poor children must live. It’s traumatic when you first see it.”