Gerry Bellett, Nov. 14, 2011, (THE VANCOUVER SUN) — The measure of how determined people are to make the world a better place can be defined by what they are prepared to give up.
So when teachers at Burnaby’s Douglas Road elementary give up their staff room each morning so children coming to school hungry can sit there while they serve them breakfast, it’s more than a sacrifice: It’s a statement.
“We just don’t have a lot of extra space in the school to feed them; only the staff room,” said principal Mary Ann Brown, who has tried unsuccessfully for years to come up with a scheme to feed hungry children.
The school at 4861 Canada Way is unusual in that it serves families that are either well off or struggling with poverty.
“We don’t seem to have too many families in the middle. Out of a population of 250 I’d say we have about 50 children who really need help,” said Brown, who has been at the school for five years.
Earlier attempts to sustain some sort of food program had failed because of a shortage of money.
What little money they had would run out and education assistant Leonie Stephens would go around to supermarkets essentially begging for food — a letter in hand from Brown explaining why it was needed.
Her efforts resulted in some gift cards and a weekly donation from Safeway of bread nearing the end of its shelf life, which Brown gratefully accepts and distributes every week for children to take home, although sometimes not everyone who needs it gets it, she said.
And an indication of how hungry some of the children are was clear when staff noticed them eating the bread while at school.
“We’d see them eating baguettes — no butter or anything — just the baguette. There was a little girl who was so excited the day we had some donated pizza shells. She said, ‘Oh this is great. I’ll be able to use them for my birthday party.’”
But the school had no means to begin a sustainable food program or provide an emergency breakfast for hungry children.
Burnaby firefighters would supply granola bars and fruit cups a couple of times a year and these would be hoarded to give to children in obvious need of food.
Teacher Todd Trask said many times the children attempt to hide their hunger.
“There’s a lot of pride in the community and with some children, you couldn’t tell because the exterior is presented properly, so it doesn’t show. Some kids are told, ‘Pretend everything is fine.’ But some of them will come to us quietly and say, ‘Can you help us?’ although there’s still a lot of reluctance.”
Earlier this year as staff at Douglas Road were wrestling with how to feed these children, not far away in the corporate headquarters of the Beedie Development Group, on Gilmore Diversion, the company’s 195 employees had a dilemma of their own.
2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the company — the province’s largest developer of industrial property, started by Keith Beedie — and to mark it, the employees vowed to raise $1,000 for every year of the company’s existence and donate it to a worthy cause.
The company is promising to match what is raised by the employees’ Sixty-Sixty Campaign. So far they have raised $40,000 of their $60,000 target.
And while fundraising of that scale is not easy, Mason Bennett and his campaign committee found it was also not easy to identify a good cause.
“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at different opportunities for this money,” said Bennett, the company’s comptroller.
“We wanted to keep it local, and another big key was that the money should make a big impact. It can be disheartening when you throw money into a big charity and it goes into a pit and you never really know what happens to it.
Eventually, the employees’ committee came across The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign. This led to a meeting with Sun columnists Shelley Fralic and Gillian Shaw, both board members of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund, which operates Adopt-A-School. As a result, the Beedie employees voted to support AAS.
“This was a perfect fit. Adopt-A-School hits all the facets of what was important to us. We can directly target funds to children and provide support in an area of their lives that has high impact, with little or no bureaucracy,” Bennett said.
The Beedie employees then discovered that not five minutes drive from their company’s office was Douglas Road elementary, a school that AAS was committed to help this year (a commitment that encouraged staff to begin serving breakfast at the beginning of November).
This led to an introduction to the school’s principal and her staff.
“We were really moved when we listened to Mary Ann (Brown) describe the separation between the haves and the have-nots. Sometimes in situations like this it’s even harder on the kids who don’t have much,” said Bennett.
Bennett was confident they will meet their goal and that the school will be on the receiving end of $120,000 to be used for food and other programs.
It will be the biggest gift any school has yet received under AAS.
“We’re really excited to have a school so close to our office,” Bennett said.
“And we want to do something that is sustainable. It’s not good if you implement a program, kids depend on it, and then you pull it after a year. We don’t want to do that.”
The money is more than enough to take care of the school’s food needs. Further meetings will take place to decide what other programs will be funded from the surplus.
Beedie employees were also keen on volunteering at the school and would be willing to take part in family literacy events or other special events such as those held before Christmas or on sports days, said Trisha Bouchard, another member of the 60|60 campaign.
“We want to be involved in helping the school in any way we can,” said Bouchard.
They would be willing to take children out to the company work sites to show them how buildings were erected, she said.
For Brown and her staff, it was Christmas in November because what the Beedie employees were offering the school is more than adoption; it is an embrace.
“We know how fortunate we are,” said Brown, struggling to find the right words. “We are just so thankful for what you are offering our school.”
Grade 4 teacher Teresa Migliuri, who has been at the school eight years, said she considered moving on but has stayed put.
“It’s because these are the sweetest kids,” she said.
“Some kids are wearing the same clothes every day and the beautiful thing is other kids don’t tease them. Everyone knows there is a line between the haves and the have-nots but it’s not spoken about. And the little things we do for them, they think are so phenomenal. If we organize a film night it puts them over the top with excitement.
“So for you guys,” she said to Bennett and Bouchard, “you will really see what you are doing is in the kids’ faces.”
On Thursday, a group of Beedie employees came to the school for the first time to see breakfast being served.
Bouchard found that what Migliuri had said was true.
“You could just see how much they loved it.”
A small example of how Adopt-a-School helps out:
On Thursday, the Adopt-A-School campaign received the following email from Liane Ricou of the Surrey School District:
“One of our students has a significant need for immediate transit assistance,” she wrote.
“In short the family’s home burned down a few weeks ago. They are living temporarily near Bear Creek Park about 15 minutes drive from the child’s school and it’s difficult for the child to get home (it being) too far to walk.
“He could take the bus home but his family cannot afford a bus pass. There is no adult available to pick him up from school.
“I wonder if you might consider a short term provision of a three month bus pass for this child to get him through this immediate crisis and ensure this vulnerable child continues to come to school.
“I fear we risk losing him if we can’t find a way to get him to school.”
It is for situations like this that Adopt-A-School was created and why we are appealing for donations.
A cheque to cover the bus fare has been sent.
“We can directly target funds to children and provide support in an area of their lives that has high impact”