December 27, 2012

Donation turns holiday hardship into joy for Strathcona children #vansunkids

By Gerry Bellett and Gillian Shaw

Most kids look forward to their Christmas school break.

But for some of Vancouver’s most impoverished children, it’s not a time of joy and laughter but a time of anxiety and hunger, as the holidays stretch out with no prospect of a hot lunch at school or a breakfast that comes courtesy of generous donors.

At Strathcona elementary school, there are 120 or so children who find a safe and nurturing place after school hours at the adjoining Strathcona community centre. But with funds stretched thin, every school holiday and professional development day brings an added financial burden — and no extra dollars in funding.

It was this dilemma that prompted Telus to step in, not only writing a cheque to cover Christmas holiday time, but also March break and professional development days when children would have no place to go if the community centre couldn’t take them in.

“For these kids, Christmas is a worrisome time, not a joyful time,” said Josh Blair, Telus executive vice-president, human resources. “We can help turn it into a time of joy.”

Telus’s gift means the doors will be open and the kids will have a safe place to spend the holidays. They’ll be fed and they’ll have activities to keep them busy and happy in the company of other kids instead of being home alone.

“We’ll be there for them,” said Blair.

And when Blair says Telus will be there, he means that quite literally.

Telus employees have taken time off from their own holidays this week and next to volunteer at the centre, helping out with its Holiday Safe Place program.

“This is very important for us,” said Blair. “It’s not just dollars in our case, but it is volunteering as well.

“Both team members and retirees will be helping out. When The Vancouver Sun brought to light through the Adopt-a-School program some of the schools that are most in need, it rang in hearts across our company.”

Blair said when Telus told employees of its plans for Strathcona, the response was immediate.

“People said: ‘We want to be part of that.’”

For Telus, the donation doesn’t stop at Christmas. As well as $20,000 to provide a safe place for kids to go to during school breaks — and for much-needed food for kids and families — the company also is putting another $20,000 toward pressing needs at the school, including literacy programs.

Blair said there are many other children and schools, both in Vancouver and in other areas, who are in need, and he hopes Telus’s action will encourage other companies to step in.

“It is our hope at the end of the day that other organizations will follow our lead,” he said.

Various programs at Strathcona Community Centre and its adjacent elementary school have received help from Adopt-a-School funds.

These funds have been targeted to feeding hungry children, ensuring these kids have the same chance to go on field trips as children in wealthier schools, and providing some much-needed technology.

It’s no exaggeration to say Strathcona relies on donors such as Telus and other major benefactors to make school bearable for many of its children.

Many need food and clothing, or to be kept safe after school or during major holidays.

Ron Suzuki, recreation director of the Strathcona Community Centre, said the winter break program will run Dec. 27, 28, 31 and Jan. 2, 3, 4 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“The program was inspired by the Kid-Safe Program (an initiative of The Vancouver Sun) established in 1993 and research that came out in 1999 showing that children at risk are the most vulnerable during holiday breaks,” said Suzuki.

“We’re happy that Telus is our most recent funder and are thrilled that their staff will be donating their time over the holidays.”

Suzuki said each child attending the program was referred there by the inner city counselling team. The children will receive breakfast, lunch and a snack.

Various activities keep the children busy and they are supervised by youth locally recruited and trained by community centre staff, said Suzuki.

“These youth are 15- to 19-year-olds and, from my observation, they are as hungry and needy as the children they are supervising,” said Suzuki.

Telus volunteer Joan Schindel (right) plays with kids at Strathcona community centre as part of the safe place program. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG)

Helping out Thursday was Telus project manager Joan Schindel, who brought eight of her family and friends with her, including her two children and her sister.

A Telus employee for 27 years, Schindel jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the Strathcona program and was one of the first to contact Suzuki to offer help.

“I love working for a company that shares my values and those I want to impart to my kids, such as helping others and giving back to the community,” said Schindel.

She said it was special to be able to perform volunteer work with friends and family.

“It gives you the time to be with your friends and family while giving back to the community,” she said.


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