Nanaimo school seeks funds to build safe room for kids

Nanaimo school seeks funds to build safe room for kids

11 years after a teacher’s plea led to the creation of Adopt-A-School by the Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Society, the need to greater then ever

Eleven years ago, it was an elementary school teacher who exposed the brutal truth about what poverty was doing to the mental health of children in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood.

In an email that went viral, Carrie Gelson described the frequent episodes of mental and emotional breakdowns of small children in her classroom unable to cope with living in a stupor caused by hunger, lack of sleep, disorder at home and all the myriad stresses poverty brings — poor hygiene, lack of proper clothing, despair.

She appealed for help from the community and her communique finished with an expression that was ahead of her time: “Because every child in Vancouver matters.”

The implications were so shocking it led to the creation of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School program, which since 2011 has distributed $9.5 million to hundreds of schools to feed and clothe impoverished children and provide families emergency help. This year, schools are seeking $2 million.

In the case of Gelson’s Admiral Seymour Elementary — located near the dense social housing projects along the East Hastings Street corridor — the help provided a sensory room where children overwhelmed by life could be coaxed into equanimity, a replacement for the cloakroom where children used to go to cry.

Margaret Jorgensen was principal of both Admiral Seymour and Lord Strathcona Elementary in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Running schools in what has been labelled the poorest postal code in Canada gives her unique insight into the mental health problems of impoverished children.

Jorgensen says the past 11 years have seen a precipitous increase in the numbers of children showing signs of mental and emotional ill-health, especially since the advent of COVID-19 and now with a cost-of-living crisis forcing more families in poverty.

“Carrie’s plea — take it and multiply the need by 100,” said Jorgensen, who is now retired and is a member of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund board of directors which administers AAS.

“What Carrie was saying 11 years ago, we are hearing from many schools now. Over the past three years, I’ve had many parents, teachers and principals calling for advice — reaching out for support and strategies to figure out ways to meet their students’ emotional needs,” said Jorgensen.

“We need to support the mental health of children and their social-emotional learning by having safe spaces with self-regulating tools and teachers who are informed how to handle trauma.

“All this is embedded in the new curriculum — yet the resources aren’t there to support it,” she said.

One school that needs such help is Park Avenue Elementary in Nanaimo — an inner-city school like Admiral Seymour — that is asking for $12,000.

While $4,000 is needed to feed and clothe students, most of the request — $8,000 — is to turn an empty classroom into a safe room, a sensory room-hub where school counsellor Sterling Jamont and another mental health professional can work with stressed out students and offer them a haven.

“I was one of these kids,” said Jamont. “I grew up in a home where there was a single, mentally-ill parent living in poverty.”

It directed her career path: “Y’know, you go into it (teaching) trying to make the world a better place.”

The room needs to be furnished and made comfortable so children in crisis feel safe — a sofa, bean bag chairs, a carpet, alternative lighting. It will need specialized equipment and calming tools to help children step back from a meltdown caused by anger, frustration, sorrow and distress.

“I had a kid come in two days ago and I could tell he was on the edge. His face was blotchy. He sort of burst into tears. His great-grandma had passed away, but his home isn’t really a place to talk about those feelings.

“We have students from refugee families where there’s 11 persons in the home. So you might need to come in here to do homework because finishing it at home is not an option.

“We could have a place where if you flip your lid in class and yell at the teacher you can sit on a bean bag and cry it out, or listen to music, stare at a lava lamp — just have a chance to regulate because it’s tough being a kid in poverty.”


By Gerry Bellett (

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