Surrey: Attendance Matters Breakfast Program
$1,550 raised
2% of $100k goal
4 contributors
50 Weeks running

There is a poignancy about Jack Kowarsky's presence among the children being served breakfast in the cramped lunchroom of Surrey's Bridgeview elementary.

In May 1945, when he was the same age as some of the youngest ones now eating scrambled eggs, he miraculously survived the Holocaust.

Of an estimated one million Jewish children living in Poland in 1939, very few survived the war: only 5,000, according to information published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

And here was one of them - a living, historical artifact from one of mankind's darkest chapters - looking on with pleasure as more than 60 children ate, many of whom are immigrants and refugees as he had once been.

Of course, none of the children were aware of his past, or of the fact that the food on the tables in front of them, including cereal, cheese, fruit, vegetables and milk, was provided by this 79-year-old Vancouver lawyer concerned for their welfare.

"When I came to Canada, my family was very poor. We had nothing," said Kowarsky.

It's a description that is not too far from describing the plight of some of these children, whose families are struggling with poverty in one of Surrey's poorest neighbourhoods.

Kowarsky is a trustee with the Lohn Foundation, which has donated more than $30 million to various charities over the years.

He began helping Adopt-A-School in 2015 after reading stories in The Vancouver Sun depicting the state of many children around the province who arrive at school hungry as a result of poverty.

"I know what it's like to be hungry as a child. That's why I wanted to help," he said.

That, of course, is a gross understatement given his experiences in Poland, but since 2015 he has directed $275,000 to Adopt-A-School, all of which has gone to Surrey to provide breakfasts for the school district's Attendance Matters program. This program feeds 937 impoverished children. Adopt-A-School is being asked to provide $100,000 so the program can be available in 23 inner-city schools, one of which is Bridgeview.

Kowarsky, who donated $50,000 this year, was here to see for himself what this means to this school and its 144 children, where 50 per cent of families are living at or below the poverty line.

This year, Surrey is seeking almost $300,000 from The Sun to support 37 inner-city schools where privation is a major issue. The money is used to buy food, bus tickets and to give some schools emergency funds to help families in times of distress.

Principal Diana Ellis gives an example of what constitutes distress.

"We had a child who was suffering from hives and needed Benadryl, but his mother didn't have any money to buy it," she said. "We had to step in."

Her school is seeking $2,000 in emergency funds from Adopt-A-School in addition to money for breakfast.

Bridgeview Elementary, on 128th and 115A Avenue, is not the grandest of areas as it lies up against the industrial estates fronting the Fraser River.

Although it is in a transition, with newer homes being built, it's hard not to notice some of the dilapidated businesses and houses near the school.

But the school is a gem, says Tara Leverington, a mother with two children there.

"This is a very welcoming school.

We have moved out of the area to Cedar Hills, but I love the school so much I drive my kids here," she said.

The Attendance Matters program started the same year as Adopt-A-School (in 2011) and uses food as a means to bring hungry children into school who otherwise might not attend. Studies show children with poor attendance generally don't graduate, with poverty and hunger the major causes.

The program is run by Meredith Verma, Community Schools manager, who told Kowarsky that staff will go out and drive children to the school if they have to.

"Breakfast is a great draw for these kids," she said. "We have families in the district where 80 per cent of their income goes to rent. That's food poverty."

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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