Rock City Elementary: Bistro
$500 raised
17% of $3k goal
5 contributors
34 Weeks running

“Some people think this is a high-end area but they don’t see how some families are living in basement suites,” she said.

Susan M’Gonigle has trouble picking out the right words when asked to describe how some of the children attending Rock City Elementary appear when they come to school in the morning.

Euphemisms don’t work and accuracy could be a bit too brutal, so she demurs.

“Let’s just say they are hungry and often their clothing and footwear is inadequate. You see shoes with holes in being worn in the snow and flip flops when it’s raining,” said M’Gonigle, a community schools coordinator.

This school of 397 students on Departure Bay Road is designated as a “focus school” by the school district — one of eight in the city — which means it has a high rate of vulnerable and needy students.

“Nanaimo is a pretty poor city. We have one of the highest percentages of low income families in B.C. — 22.7 per cent,” said M’Gonigle.

The area around the school is home to a growing number of transient and vulnerable families living in basement or illegal suites and this is increasing every year, she says.

“People are beginning to spread out more and more as they try and find more reasonable rents.”

And some families require assistance. Some of them are large families and some are new to Nanaimo.

The school is seeking $3,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign so it can take care of more than 20 children who come to school hungry each day and need breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The school serves about 45 meals a day for kids who have not been fed and often come in with little or no food.

Lisha De-Vries, the volunteer coordinator of the school’s meals program, said their need was to feed the children so they were capable of learning.  Signs of poverty in the school are clearly visible.

“Some people think this is a high-end area but they don’t see how some families are living in basement suites,” she said.

The breakfast program started five years ago when teachers began noticing the hungry state of the children arriving in the morning.

At first a church group ran it three mornings a week, but the need forced the program to expand to five days a week.

The church had limited resources and demand was increasing, said M’Gonigle, so they went to the food bank for supplies.

Then two years ago she applied to The Sun for help.

AAS provided the school (and others in the city) with funds for its breakfast program as well as money to buy winter coats, shoes and pants for students.

The money helped families having trouble paying rent as well as providing food, clothing and transportation for themselves, she said.

“I don’t ask parents how they make their choices (on what they spend) but we are trying to alleviate some of their food costs,” M’Gonigle said.

This is necessary because some families without transportation find it difficult to get to the food bank or the Salvation Army or other social services as these are located in the town centre.

“If they don’t have transportation and can’t afford bus fares they might not be able to get to the food bank when they need,” she said.

On Fridays children take home any leftover food in the school fridge to help their families get through the weekend.

Meanwhile, there has been an improvement in the food served for breakfast.

“You guys have changed the face of food in my schools,” said M’Gonigle.

“I used to have to go to the food bank for what we could get but now I can buy food for our kids like they were my own kids,” she said.

“For clothing I was able to take advantage of Sears closing down and Superstore sales and was able to give coats and shoes and pants with the labels still on so the kids could see they weren’t getting hand-me-downs but something new — all thanks to Adopt-A-School.

“And did they ever need it.

“It just warmed my heart being able to provide this for them.”

Within the past few months this newspaper has carried stories concerning poverty that should cause alarm in the minds of most right thinking people.

One disclosed that hundreds of homeless children can be found in the Greater Vancouver area -- 681 according to a survey.

Another spoke of the continuing delay by a B.C. government to formulate a poverty reduction plan in a province that has the highest rates of child poverty in the country.

Yet another spoke of the insidious effect poverty was having on the mental health of children.

So what is being done?

B.C. is the only province without a poverty reduction plan despite the fact that 557,000 residents -- including a fifth of our children -- are living in conditions so abject as to endanger them physically, mentally and morally.

The NDP government came to power promising to improve the lives of the poor but we won’t know until next year what their plan entails although its aim, apparently, is a drastic reduction of poverty levels by 2024.

Now that must seem a long way off when today you don’t have enough money to eat and pay the rent or can’t buy your child a pair of shoes or a winter coat.

So until this brave new world arrives when, hopefully, thousands of children aren’t coming to school hungry, or traumatized by the dehumanizing stresses of living in destitution this newspaper will continue its efforts to help them through our Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign.

It will also continue to demand that the government implement a program to ensure children who need feeding at school get fed.

AAS was launched in 2011 and this will be our eighth appeal.

“To date  $3.8 million has been distributed to 140 schools throughout the province,” said Harold Munro, editor of the Vancouver Sun-Province newspapers and chair of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund board which oversees Adopt-A-School.

“Last year almost $600,000 was sent to schools to help alleviate the effects poverty was having on students -- buying food, clothing, and other necessities. The money was distributed to teachers who have to deal with the stress of seeing children in pitiful states without any other means of help,” he said.

“Without the support of our readers who have stood with us, nothing could have been done, only more of the helpless hand wringing the poor are all too familiar with.”

This fall the Sun has received requests from close to 80 schools totalling more than $800,000 -- most asking for help to feed children.

In September The New York Times carried a front page story about children in a wealthy, first world country arriving at school unfed, hungry and chronically in need of help. That a prestigious North American newspaper found such a story worth the telling is significant.

The story -- with a few geographical alterations -- could well have fitted into the pages of this newspaper’s AAS coverage anytime in the last seven years.

Their reporter went to Morecambe -- a small seaside town in the northwest of England.

Teachers there said that until recently they had never seen children arriving in such a state.  What shocked them most was that many were children whose parents had jobs who in the past could be expected to feed them.

The conditions the NYT found in Morecambe can be found here.

However, there are some differences between Morecambe and Vancouver.

Firstly, we have had this state of affairs far longer than four or five years and the level of privation in our children is much worse.

Unlike humble Morecambe, the working poor here have the added burden of living in one of the world’s most heated real estate markets which has driven rents to a point where -- for the poor -- it becomes a toss up between paying rent or eating.

Teachers have consistently pointed to that dilemma as one of the main evils suffered by families trying to exist on income assistance or minimum wage jobs.

It results in families constantly going hungry at weekends, some with no food or, as we discovered in one case, with only an onion to share between them.

It is the reason The Vancouver Sun is again asking readers for their continued support, said Munro.

“There are scores of requests from schools desperate to give these children and families the dignity of being fed, clothed and cherished,” said Munro.

“This is not an appeal for charity as it is for justice. These children are voiceless, they suffer the indignity of hunger and privation in silence  and their pain is only apparent to their teachers.

“We can’t leave it like that,’ said Munro.

“In the next few months we will be sharing their stories. Please, if you are in a position to help, join with us. One hundred percent of your donation will go to these children.”

An idea of what some teachers here are dealing with is apparent from an email recently received from an inner-city school teacher ostensibly describing how donations of clothing -- thanks to AAS -- were coming into her school.

But it finished with a telling account of her day:

“... then I hear of six people sleeping today in a living room … or a 14-year-old pregnant … or a child seeing a parent using a needle … and (see) kids killing (bed) bugs in the palms of their hands while learning to read … and I’m so grateful to have this huge village helping our families. “I’m exhausted.”

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