For Elaine Arsenault the beautiful moments at school far outweigh the ugly.
“I’ve been head-butted, spat upon, I’ve been called a crackhead and worse,” said the child and youth care worker in Chilliwack’s Watson Elementary school.
But then a child who looks like he could be a model for one of Raphael’s angels will come lugging in a backpack full of food that he wants to donate to the homeless.
The boy is from a family who are poor themselves and he’s emptied the larder at home for people he imagines are worse off.
“His family is very low income. I feed him and his brothers every day,” said Arsenault, who then had the delicate task of getting the food returned.
The explosions of violence she describes are the result of children having been subjected to extreme trauma.
“It’s what these kids are having to deal with in their lives. From drug and alcohol addiction (of parents) to abuse at home. We’ve got kids whose parents have committed suicide.”
And in nearly all cases poverty and privation have played a part. Seventy-five to 80 per cent of the school’s 500 children are from low income families.
The emotional damage to 10 children is so severe that Arsenault spends time every day with them in the school’s version of a Snoezelen Room.
A Snoezelen or sensory room is supposed to be equipped with a variety of devices designed to bring peace to a troubled spirit. They use black lights, strobes, large bubble tubes, fibre optics, projectors to place images of animals, or landscapes on the walls, tents to shelter under, swings — there are catalogues full of stuff.
It all helps children regulate their emotions and hopefully heads off meltdowns.
But Watson’s is a Snoezelen Room in name only. There’s a Canadian Tire tent, some worn out bean bags, a small lamp and not much else.
“Sometimes the kids just want to sit in here and be quiet,” she said.
It will take $10,000 to equip the room and Arsenault has applied to the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) fund for the money.
She’s also seeking $5,000 to continue feeding the 50 children a day who come to school hungry. In February AAS sent $10,000 to the school to equip a kitchen and buy food for these children.
Before that she was making porridge for 50 using a microwave.
She’s constantly monitoring them for signs of hunger or stress.
The trip wire that sets some of them off can be as delicate as a look or the wrong word from a classmate.
“When it happens and they lose control they can hurt themselves and others. They’ll rip things off walls, tip over desks, break equipment. I had one boy run right at a window and put both hands through the glass.”
“So far this year we’ve had to clear classrooms ten times,” she said.
“Yes I’ve been head-butted and spit on but you know these kids only want to be loved.
“I wish I could take them home.
“I give them the best six hours in the day they have and then I have to wait till next morning until they are here again.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)