Each month the SOS room in the basement of Norquay elementary offers a lifeline to as many as 14 impoverished families.
The acronym stands for Support Our Students but it’s too close to the international Morse signal for immediate rescue for there to be any doubts what it’s all about.
And Margaret Jorgensen, who inherited the room when she took over as principal two years ago, says this small storehouse with shelves of food and dry goods is indispensable to families struggling with poverty, sometimes combined with illness.
“Since September we’ve had three new families arrive at the school and two are now dealing with Crohn’s Disease and the other with lupus.
“We have two families that are really having a horrible go of it, dealing with situations that would crush most people, and they are barely managing.
“So if you add all that to trying to manage life in general … well, if we can remove some of the barriers for them, such as food security, it helps.”
When there is nothing to eat at home and no money for food or other necessities, the SOS room with its shelves of canned soup, Alphagetti, jam, peanut butter, luncheon meat, juice, cereal, noodles, beans and granola bars is there.
It’s nothing fancy, said Jorgensen, but the kind of food children can easily prepare for themselves if they have to.
Standing with her inside the storeroom was Jeff Thorsteinson, the COO of the Vancouver office of Assante Wealth Management.
In December, his company had asked The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund if there was a Vancouver school its staff could help and Thorsteinson was directed to Norquay — the school had applied to The Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) program for $3,000 to keep the SOS room operating and to provide money for emergency vouchers to buy items not stocked.
(The AAS campaign is seeking donations for similar requests from other schools.)
Listening to Jorgensen outline the dilemmas of families without the means to adequately feed their children, Thorsteinson was moved to ask if $3,000 was adequate.
“That should take us through to next Christmas,” Jorgensen said. “We spend on average about $200 to $300 a month to restock, then we have grocery vouchers on deck for when families come back from the holidays,” she said. “The school board has identified the number of kids here who are vulnerable at about 30. But it fluctuates. We have about 40.”
“Well if you need more you should ask,” said Thorsteinson.
He wondered if his staff of eight could become involved in volunteering at the school.
“Writing a cheque is fine but we’d all feel more passionate about helping if we could do something tangible.”
Jorgensen jumped at this and gave him an outline of school events for which she could use help.
Norquay is an example of a school that receives help from a number of sources, said Jorgensen, who was previously principal of Strathcona elementary and Seymour elementary — two of the neediest schools in Vancouver.
Norquay’s breakfast program, which feeds 75 hungry children a day, is paid for by donations, with the Rotary Club of Vancouver picking up 50 per cent of the cost.
Toys for families receiving Christmas hampers came from London Drugs.
Jorgensen says families will only ask for help when they are desperate.
“It’s rare that you find a family that has that cyclical sense of dependency,” she said.
“Most families access the SOS room once or twice and then they are golden. In fact, there are families that when given the opportunity have given back.”
And when they do it helps knit the school together, she said.
“It’s the power of parent-to-parent that’s important. As parents we learn from each other. So the more opportunity to get families into the school and connected with each other, the more we are all supported.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)