December 26, 2012

Bridging the gap: Students learn how little it takes to make a difference #vansunkids

By Daphne Bramham

Last fall, Julie Takahashi was not only inspired to do something for the children at Admiral Seymour elementary school, she inspired a whole school to help.

What began as a one-time fundraising event has evolved into something more and because of it, the kids at West Vancouver’s Sentinel high school are learning valuable lessons about where they live and what it takes to make a difference.

“It’s turned from charity to friendship and to relationships between the schools and the students,” says Patricia Neijens, who’s in the Grade 12 science class taught by Takahashi.

“We’ve learned that Vancouver is a big city with many different cultures and levels of affluence. But we are all the same and we need to help each other. We shouldn’t be afraid to walk across the (Lions Gate) bridge and have them come here.”

It may seem surprising, but many of the West Vancouver students rarely leave their self-contained suburb to go to Vancouver. Patricia says many parents are not comfortable letting them go.

“Here, it’s very safe, very quiet. In Vancouver, there’s lots of noise, lots of people moving. It’s a little disorienting,” she says.

Twins Tony and Tommy Hua, who are in Grade 9, agreed, saying they find Vancouver a bit frightening.

“It feels like there’s kind of a moat between us,” says Taylor Bortolussi, a Grade 10 student.

But spending time at Seymour school and getting to know some of the students has helped bridge that gap even as they’ve been forced to confront the reality of what Taylor describes as “a pseudo Third World country just 15 minutes away.”

Sentinel high school Grade 10 student Taylor Bortolussi

Taylor, who was wearing a red Flash T-shirt, says helping ease the lives of kids across the bridge and making them happier is something anybody – even a kid – can do.

He says that a few years ago, his dad took him to a comic book store in downtown Vancouver and urged his son to pick a super-hero. Taylor chose The Flash because “he’s just a regular guy who is given responsibility and power and decided to make a difference in the community.”

These kids and their school’s connection to Seymour began with Takahashi reading her science students a letter that teacher Carrie Gelson sent to The Vancouver Sun in the fall of 2011 about her students being hungry, cold and forgotten.

It struck a personal chord with Takahashi. She and her husband had lived in the Seymour school neighbourhood and loved it. Their daughter went to junior kindergarten and kindergarten at Seymour before the family moved away because, Takahashi says, “We saw the neighbourhood with different eyes when we had children.

“We wished I could have taken the school with us and I felt bad for the children who didn’t have the choice to be able to live somewhere where they don’t have to see things like condoms on the train tracks and all the street chaos,” she says.

“I know what they see in the back alleys after dark and I want those children to know that they are important and that that is not the life that they are destined to live.”

Her students, along with Dawn Armstrong’s math class, came up with the idea of providing individualized gifts for every child.

They ran the idea past Andrea Wilks, the lead teacher at Seymour, and Wilks said what they all really needed were pyjamas.

So, last Christmas, the science students raised enough money to buy a pair for every child. They wrapped them, put a child’s name on every gift card and a handful of students (whose names were drawn out of a hat) went to Seymour to deliver the PJs.

But that was only the beginning.

Before summer holidays, Sentinel students again raised money and were able to buy beach towels, sunscreen and a hat for every Seymour student.

This fall, when Sentinel students were ordering hoodies with their school name as a means of instilling school spirit, they decided that Seymour kids should be proud of their school, too.

So while they raised the money, they had sample hoodies sent to Seymour so kids there would get the right size … and not just the kids. Sentinel raised enough to buy hoodies for all teachers, staff and volunteers as well.

Patricia, Taylor and the twins were the students chosen to deliver them.

“After Carrie Gelson’s letter, there was a lot of attention on Admiral Seymour,” says Patricia. “Now, it’s kind of died down. But that doesn’t mean the problems have gone away. I think that’s important to keep in mind.”

Certainly, Sentinel hasn’t forgotten its adopted school. There were 27 classes and 50 teachers actively involved in this year’s pyjama drive – double last year’s number. They met their goal of buying 120 pairs of pyjamas at $15 a pair. Students wrapped each pair with a ribbon and put a Seymour student’s name on the card.

But the relationship has gone beyond just gift-giving.

On Dec. 19, not even the snow, wind and terrible driving conditions kept Seymour’s entire school population from crossing the bridge in buses paid for by Sentinel.

The 120 Seymour kids — many in their blue hoodies — were the special guests at Sentinel’s annual winter concert, sitting in the auditorium with the Grade 8 and Grade 9 students.

The concert was interrupted by occasional power outages. But they didn’t mind. They watched and listened as Patricia sang with the choir and Tony played in the orchestra. And they were thrilled by the appearance of Santa Claus.

Then, off they went to the cafeteria for grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, prepared for them by the foods teacher and her class. Other Sentinel students served the little ones at the tables. And still other Sentinel students handed out the pyjamas.

Too often, we look away from poverty, retreating to our insulated and comfortable neighbourhoods.

But as Tommy said, “No matter how old you are, you can always make change in the world and help each other.”

dbramham@vancouversun.com

 

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