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.”
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