“If it wasn’t for (Safe Schools) I feel like I’d still be getting into trouble. They have helped me calm down. I was getting into too many fights.” — An at-risk youth who has been helped by the funds made available through the Adopt-A-School program.
He looks like he’s just taking a break from the set of Westside Story, the good looks, the American-Latino glibness, but here’s a 15-year-old whose acting out is real, the gang trouble and the police a matter of record.
Because of this he can’t be named.
But sitting in a locked down, single storey unit in one of North Surrey’s innumerable commercial strip developments — used as a temporary school — he provides a simple story of redemption.
And for the purposes of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt A School campaign he provides a story of how money raised for Surrey school district’s Wraparound program has helped change his life.
The Wrap program is operated by the Safe Schools team which has a client list of 150 of the most at-risk youth in Surrey, many of whom are poor while a number have gone through the court system.
“The funds you guys raise goes to help these kids and their families. It allows us to help them in many ways. This kid’s an example,” says Jon Ross, a member of the team which is comprised of RCMP officers and school district staff.
“You have a unique story. Why don’t you just tell him,” Ross says to the youth.
He does. And if one considers all the current problems — large, small, political, social, economic or personal — that are causing turmoil in the lives of millions of poor people in this hemisphere, his experiences would put a tick against many of them.
First off he’s American-born and seeking refuge here from Donald Trump’s America.
His parents were born in El Salvador and had lived and worked in the U.S. for a number of years. And although he was born in Maryland it’s no secret that the Trump regime has raised questions about the validity of citizenship for children born to undocumented migrants.
The first to leave America was his stepfather — the most vulnerable — who took himself over the border to Toronto.
“He was scared he was going to be sent back to his country,” he says.
“My mom had permission to be there (in the U.S.) but they didn’t trust that would help her stay in the States so she followed my stepdad to Canada to start a new life with me and my sister so we don’t get split apart.”
“So I guess we are refugees. My stepdad is trying to get us status here.”
First they lived in Toronto for a while, then moved to Edmonton for a year where he put down some tenuous roots.
“We had a life there, I had friends, then we had to go to Vancouver. This moving around, it was too much.”
The family arrived in Surrey in December 2017 and in the following February he was enrolled in a Surrey secondary school which will remain unnamed.
By now he was 14 and the stress in his life and his rootlessness was beginning to show.
“In school I was arguing with teachers, cursing the principal, getting into fights, not coming to class.”
He had been found using drugs and was not allowed to leave the classroom without an escort.
“I’d be followed around everywhere, even to the bathroom. They wouldn’t leave me alone. I guess at the time I was mad at being moved around so much.”
He was expelled and it wasn’t long before he ended up with a gang of friends that took his behaviour from problematic to criminal.
The crew were in a shopping mall “and one of my friends sees this kid he’s having problems with so one kid passes me a can of Mace (bear repellent). And my friend pushes this other kid and the other kid’s going to punch him so I sprayed the kid.”
He ran away and tried to hide among the crowd in the food fair but a security guard had followed and then the RCMP arrived.
“I gave them a fake name but they said that’s not your name and they arrested me. I was charged with assault with a weapon and obstructing a police officer.”
It was at this point the Safe Schools team became involved with the family.
They were living crammed together in a basement suite and it was the team that helped them find furniture.
“They gave us a dining table, couches, stuff we needed. They really helped us. At Christmas they got us winter coats, food, like a turkey. My parents are hardworking who are just trying to make a good life for us,” he said.
The money that helped the family came from AAS, said Ross.
This year the Wrap Program is seeking $10,000 to help kids and families with food, clothing and other emergency needs this winter.
The youth’s Wrap case manager was Matt Huot and he would show up outside his apartment to ensure he got up and came to his new school.
“That meant a lot to me.”
Huot directed this youth’s energies to playing soccer. He made the school team and Huot got him to play for a community team to keep him busy at weekends and away from his former friends.
But his family didn’t have the money to equip him. He needed boots, shin guards, registration fees and it was all paid for by AAS.
The youth said his dream would be to play professional soccer and the program arranged for him to be a guest of the Vancouver Whitecaps at their UBC training facility.
He was also able to play at a soccer tournament in Kamloops with his community team this summer with all his travelling and accommodation expenses and equipment again provided by AAS.
“If it wasn’t for (Safe Schools) I feel like I’d still be getting into trouble. They have helped me calm down. I was getting into too many fights.
“I lived in the States but I feel it’s better for me to be here than there. That’s the first time I have ever felt that.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)