Families in ‘a constant state of grieving’ from community’s high death rate

Families in ‘a constant state of grieving’ from community’s high death rate

Tragedies from COVID, drug overdoses, suicide, old age, car accidents, organ failure, cold, exposure inevitably show up in schools.


FORT ST. JAMES — The last few years have not been kind to this small community, a former fur-trading post on the shores of Stuart Lake.

First came the pandemic and then the wildfires, which — for a community dependent on forestry to feed its families — caused hardship as logging and work in the sawmills declined.

And even worse, since 2020 the community has experienced a death every week, sometimes two, said Jhen Bridgeman, the at-risk youth care worker at Fort St. James Secondary.

“Every week in our community now, somebody is dying, leaving many families in a constant state of grieving and families reeling, providing for children who have lost their primary caregivers,” said Bridgeman.

“We are in crisis. The death rate is extremely high considering the population is 2,500. There is no one in the community that has not been affected in some way by the number of deaths … from COVID, drug overdoses, suicide, old age, car accidents, organ failure, cold, exposure.”

Inevitably, the results of these tragedies will show up in school.

“I am emotional about it. I’ve worked here 15 years, and this is a big change. When children come in, I want to be able to freely say, ‘Of course I can help you’ and I don’t want them to worry. But (the increasing number seeking help) has been a big worry since September.

“Daily, a child is coming in asking for the basic necessities of life. We are talking food, blankets and pillows, just so they can sleep,” she said.

She has been greatly assisted by the community that has helped the school, but it’s December and what resources she had are now almost gone.

“The kids are asking me for shoes and blankets and I’m crossing my fingers hoping I’ll find the money.”

Blankets and pillows are in demand because the number of deaths has led to family upheavals, with children seeking to stay in the homes of other family members or friends. Some homes are not equipped with enough bedding to supply their guests.

“These kids are not sleeping on beds, just foamies on the floor. I’ve just come back from a house we have to help because they were telling me they don’t have any blankets or pillows.”

She is asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $17,500 so she can buy food, bedding, and clothes for some of the school’s 270 students.

Bridgeman would also like to provide them with the means to enjoy extracurricular activities such as sports, as some impoverished students don’t have the money for registration fees or items such as basketball shoes.

Meanwhile, having an extra child or children in a house can be a strain on families, especially if they are financially struggling themselves, she said.

“Today’s Friday and I’ll be filling up backpacks as best I can for the weekend, noodle soups and cans of soup, anything simple for them to eat and take with them.”

The lack of appropriate winter clothing in an area where it gets as cold as -40 degrees C and where there is no public transit and many students must walk to school, is a grave concern.

“The school doesn’t have the money to purchase winter clothing for students as most of our money goes to feeding them,” she said.

“They need big parkas, snow pants, heavy duty winter boots, gloves, toques … and not the cheap kind, not when it’s minus 30 to 40. These kids are walking to wherever they need to go.”

It’s a two-hour drive southeast to Prince George, and that’s where she goes to shop.

“Last year, I bought $3,000 worth of shoes (using a provincial grant that isn’t available this year) and gave them to everyone who needed them. But now, come winter, I’ll need winter boots.”

As an indication of how dire it is for some families, the school has had several requests from parents for help with paying hydro and gas bills.

“It’s so they can provide the basic necessities for their families, but unfortunately the school is unable to help with this either.”

By Gerry Bellett (gbellett@gmail.com)

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