We Need Your Help for Children in Need
On Tuesday morning, the doors of Captain James Cook Elementary will be opened early by principal Dan Knibbs who will be there to serve the school’s first breakfast — an inaugural event and the culmination of Knibbs’ desire to at least do this much to alleviate hunger in his school.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I came to the school in September,” said Knibbs who is expecting the new program to feed at least 40 children a day.
This breakfast program — fully funded from donations to The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund as a result of our Adopt-A-School campaign — is one example of how readers’ generosity is helping feed hundreds of children who come to school hungry each morning.
This year’s campaign will result in about half a million dollars being available for feeding and clothing impoverished children.
It will also be used for emergency food vouchers for families unable to stretch social assistance benefits from one end of the month to the other, or for the hundred-and-one needs that poverty presents to principals and teachers each month; often in the guise of a desperate mother unable to buy food, or pay for transportation, or medicine, or laundry, or the means to kill lice or bedbugs.
In the case of Captain Cook, those famished children will be fed thanks to a $60,000 donation from Carole Taylor and her husband Art Phillips — which will keep the program in food for at least five years — and a donation of almost $9,000 from the Vancouver Rotary Club.
The Rotary’s donation (the club had already donated $7,000 for a breakfast and books program) was used to refurbish a kitchen in the school and to buy and install a dishwasher and provide all the equipment needed to prepare and serve breakfast.
“We just couldn’t have done this without the help we’ve received from Carole and her husband and Rotary. It’s humbling and we are in their debt,” said Knibbs.
Funds raised by AAS this year will fund field trips for children whose parents haven’t the money to send them, buy literacy kits for children struggling to read or learn English, buy sensory room equipment for children who are anxious and need to be calmed down, will move a playground from one school to another, even reinstate a vital pre-kindergarten program to help South Asian children get ready to enter school.
The campaign has received support from large corporations and private foundations, employee groups, law firms, real estate companies, labour organizations, other schools and many individuals.
Direct donations of computer equipment from Best Buy and Future Shop have put iPads and computers in the hands of needy or special needs children at two schools while the Vancouver Aquarium and Grouse Mountain have given free access to a number of children from inner city schools whose chances of ever visiting such blue-chip attractions were slim.
Westbild Holdings responded to Adopt-A-School by setting up a $50,000 scholarship to help students graduating from Coquitlam’s alternative education school, CABE, pay for career training or post-secondary education.
Telus, which has supported the appeal from the beginning, donated $40,000 this year to support after-school programs and literacy for Strathcona elementary students.
Entrepreneur Divyesh Gadhia and Fluor Canada have come to the aid of Burnaby’s Twelfth Avenue Elementary to sustain a breakfast program there.
Similarly, AAS has been supported by donations from Peter Young who put up $35,000 for various AAS programs, the Trevor Linden Foundation, the Bentall Foundation, a cycling group led by Sharon Kreutzer, Vision Communications, ZLC Foundation, Gail Brown. Dana Merritt and friends, Dr. Joan Sangster — to name a few.
Donations have ranged from princely sums to a $1 cheque signed in an elderly and weak hand mailed from a reader in a care home for whom the money was likely a significant portion of their disposable income.
Vancouver Sun publisher Gordon Fisher offered his profound thanks to all those who have supported this year’s campaign.
“We realize there is no shortage of good causes that need help so we are particularly grateful for all those corporate and individual donors who have recognized the importance of ensuring that children should not be left hungry or ill-clothed at school or be denied access to such things as field trips or technology simply because of poverty,” said Fisher. “We do not see helping these children an act of charity but rather one of social justice. Surely every child should have a right not to be in school hungry, or without proper clothing for the weather.
“It is our hope that some day there will be no need for an Adopt-A-School campaign but until then we will continue to seek your support,” said Fisher.
The campaign resulted in many tens of thousands of dollars flowing directly to schools or other organizations. In one incident a man arrived in Vancouver’s Britannia Elementary and promptly signed a cheque for $7,500 the day after reading the school was running out of the means to help impoverished families with used clothing and emergency food.
Another reader is donating $2,000 to Britannia to pay for art therapy classes for traumatized children — children disturbed by some event relating to poverty.
“People are constantly coming in, dropping off clothes and shoes and giving us cheques for $20 or $30, and we tell them it’s going into our Adopt-A-School fund for emergency food and snacks and they’re happy to hear that,” said principal Ian Cannon. Donations from Sun readers have started two breakfast programs from scratch, resuscitated a program which would have run out of money any time now, supported programs in eight Surrey schools plus others in Vancouver, and prevented five breakfast programs from being closed due to shortfall in donations of $54,000.
The programs at Carleton, Grandview, Mount Pleasant, Nightingale and Norquay were saved thanks to a $27,000 donation from the Sidoo Family Foundation with matching funds from Adopt-A-School made to the Vancouver school district.
Those are some of the broad strokes that paint the picture of breakfast programs. But it’s the finer strokes that are the most revealing.
These are found in conversations with teachers who will tell of kids so destabilized by hunger they hoard any food they see lying around or the small child who could have tumbled out of a page from Oliver Twist and came back five times one morning for more scrambled eggs.
That’s the true picture of need. And the rationale for Adopt-A-School.
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WHY ADOPT A SCHOOL?
The school year had barely begun at Admiral Seymour elementary when teacher Carrie Gelson, frustrated after a difficult day at work, wrote an impassioned open letter to Vancouver residents asking if anyone cared about her inner-city students who were coming to school with empty tummies and holes in their shoes.
The response was astonishing. Just minutes after her plea was published in The Vancouver Sun, donations and offers of help began to arrive at the school, turning into a flood of generosity that continues to this day. For a little school on Keefer Street in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside, the experience has been profound and inspiring.
“Magical” is the word headteacher Andrea Wilks uses to describe the extraordinary events of the past six weeks, and the magic promises to keep coming. The school has received thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, hundreds of pairs of shoes and socks, scores of warm coats, sweaters and pants in all sizes, and so much snack food for the hungry kids that the cupboards are full to overflowing.
She uses file folders to keep track of all the emails and letters, but would need buckets to hold all the love.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “So many people … It’s just amazing.”
Many donations have already been distributed to children mired in poverty in nearby housing projects and more pile up in the office every day. Gelson’s initial request was for socks, shoes and snacks, and while she got more than enough of those to satisfy the need this year and next, she was stunned by dozens of completely unexpected offers.
For example, a woman with a home-based cupcake business now brings sweet treats to the school every month to celebrate students’ birthdays, another woman is outfitting the school’s art room with supplies and a four-foot-high dollhouse, and a North Shore group has offered to create gingerbread houses with the children before Christmas.
Two Surrey mothers drive into Vancouver once a week to spend a half-day helping in the classroom, a young woman who’s studying social work at the University of the Fraser Valley is on hand every Wednesday and two newly graduated teachers who have yet to land jobs are now regular volunteers. In total, the school has 25 new volunteers.
Businesses, community organizations, school groups, churches and celebrities have joined individuals from around the Lower Mainland and beyond with offers that exceeded Gelson’s fondest hopes. The Salvation Army is now delivering food regularly for distribution to deserving families, Sport Chek donated more than 100 pairs of new shoes and boots, and more help is coming from the Better Business Bureau. CIBC Wood Gundy is continuing with the hot breakfast program it’s offered at the school for almost 20 years.
As well, a newly graduated teacher, Christopher Lam, now affectionately known at the school as The Gecko Guy, brought exotic animals into classrooms for a biology lesson, the Zajac Foundation has invited two dozen students to spend a weekend on a ranch for children, and teenage star Brendan Meyer arranged to have 60 students watch the taping of his YTV hit show Mr. Young while munching pizza at the Burnaby studio last week.
Later this month, a group of Calgary volunteers will visit the school as part of the celebrations leading up to the Grey Cup on Nov. 27. They’ve promised to bring a band, clowns and their mascot along with this year’s Stampede Queen and the Indian Princess to entertain students from Seymour and nearby Strathcona elementary.
“It’s been like Christmas,” said Wilks as she laughingly demonstrated the “happy dance” that staff members do as the kindness rolls in.
Gelson, who has taught at Seymour for 16 years, said she expected some reaction when she penned her plea at the end of a rough day, but never imagined it would be so massive. On the day her letter was published, when she arrived at the school at 9 a.m., “People had already dropped off thousands of dollars in cash by that time. They literally drove into work that morning bringing donations.”
One of her favourite responses is pinned to the bulletin board in her classroom. It’s a letter, decorated with brightly coloured stamps of cars, that reads: “My name is Logan and I am in Grade 2 in Edmonton, I have socks for all of the kids in your class. I hope they like them.”
Logan’s mother, Susan Ketteringham, said she learned about Gelson’s appeal through Twitter and mentioned it to her son at the dinner table. “He’s a very lucky child — he’s an only child and has everything he needs,” she said in a telephone interview from their Edmonton home. “We’re trying to teach him about empathy and gratitude.”
Keen to help, Logan, 7, gathered money from his piggy bank and went with his mom to shop, choosing all the socks himself and being careful to select only the coolest ones, which were bundled up and sent to Gelson. In return, Gelson’s students all wrote individual letters of thanks. Said a delighted Ketteringham: “There are so many great lessons in this for him.”
But he’s not the only one learning from the experience. So, too, are Seymour teachers.
“I expected people to respond,” Janice Parry said in reference to Gelson’s letter. “But I didn’t expect strangers to come in off the street and say ‘Hi, my name is Jim and here’s $1,000 … I want to be involved and I want to meet your students.’ That I did not expect, and that’s just one example.”
She believes the community and her small school are developing bonds that will endure. “It’s all about relationships, and once you start to develop a relationship with these children, you feel compelled to come back and to keep supporting them.”
Some have chided the teachers for begging for handouts rather than lobbying government for action to eradicate child poverty, but Parry shrugs off the criticism. Policy changes are needed, she said, but someone else will have to fight that battle. “My concern, my urgency is here every day and quite frankly, my students can’t wait. When you’re on the front lines … you take whatever people will give.”
Through all of this, Seymour students may be learning the most valuable lesson of all — that their community cares.
“When volunteers and donors show up, that means the world to these kids,” Gelson said. “It’s saying ‘you matter to me’ and that’s huge.”