NANAIMO — Google Woodlands Secondary School and the search engine will come up with the message ‘ Permanently closed’ which is only partially correct.
Most of this old, worn out, sprawling high school on Strathmore Street is boarded up — the windows nailed over with sheets of plywood, all the doors locked and bolted since it was closed four years ago.
But one small corner shows signs of life.
It is here that students in Brett Hancock’s alternative education program can be found each day, depending on how many choose to come.
Having food available, however, dramatically increases the odds of attendance.
“We have 150 kids here (there are another 150 in John Barsby Community School) and we need food because being fed is a big piece in breaking down barriers with our students,” says Hancock, district principal of Learning Alternatives for the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Public Schools.
Of his combined 300 students — aged between 13 and 19 — 200 are not getting enough food at home, he said.
And some could be considered homeless — couch surfing at friends’ homes — or living in emergency safe houses, just one step from the street and living in a tent.
“We see these kids within a minute of us opening the doors,” he says.
“Poverty here is growing. I was brought up in Nanaimo so I know what it is like. There’s a safe house with 16 beds and half of them are being used by our students.
“The problem is a lot of our kids’ home lives are not consistent. School has to be consistent. It needs to be a warm, safe place where they can access food.
“Food has an impact on their physical, emotional and spiritual wellness. It impacts learning. We saw it last year when we involved students in food preparation and cleanup for the first time.
“We had 77 Grade 12 graduates — an all-time high. We used to only get half that,” he says.
Hancock and his staff are fully reliant on community help.
The local food bank supplies non-perishable items and Bodhi’s Bakery gives bread and there is support from the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Schools Foundation.
But it’s not enough. He needs to be able to buy fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, and protein to feed students coming in hungry every morning.
The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign is being asked for $10,000 for food and clothing so he can provide students with winter coats, shoes and boots, socks, toques and gloves.
“We see some kids with holes in their shoes, no socks. We need to get them warm clothes. The money will allow us to give students breakfast and help our most vulnerable kids. It will change their lives,” says Hancock.
“There was a girl who came to us at 15 after she left an unsafe family environment. She was bouncing from one (foster) family to another and was in and out of the emergency shelter and by mid-August two years ago she was living on the street. Very dangerous for her.
“Once we found out we intervened. What she needed was a sense of belonging. For her it was this school.
“She would meet teachers at the door, help to prepare breakfast and was able to eat here in a non-shameful way. Without food there was no way she could have moved forward with her learning.
“She completed Grade 12 with honours and is having great success in her life and working in (a major hotel in) Whistler.”
Hancock said he couldn’t imagine living hour-to-hour the way some of his students do.
“Yet that’s our kids’ lives. When there’s a two-week break coming you can see it in their eyes. They know they will be going without.”
Summer is the worst of all times.
Concerned how students would cope during the long break, Hancock and his family stayed in town this summer.
“We made ourselves available to them. We’d have barbecues or we’d tell them we would be at the beach and make a pile of sandwiches. I wanted to keep in touch.”
All this because the summer of 2018 had brought tragedy.
It involved a youth Hancock had first met in 2014 outside a grocery store watching for unreturned carts so he could return them and retrieve the $1 coins inside.
“He’d experienced a great deal of abuse and neglect. He was 13 then and we got chatting and I took him to Subway for a meal,” says Hancock.
He persuaded the boy to come to his school, telling him he would be fed, and within a few years he was being successful at school and working at Subway, giving the majority of his wages to his mother to help with the rent.
“He was the heart of our program and I loved our morning chats,” says Hancock. “He said it was the first time he felt he belonged.”
But that summer (2018) his mom was evicted. The pair joined other homeless people in Tent City, an encampment near the Gabriola ferry terminal where the desperately poor gather — a scene of despair right from the pages of a Steinbeck novel.
“He soon lost his job and then turned to drugs. Within weeks he was found dead. OD’d on Fentanyl.”
It had all happened while Hancock was away on holiday with his family.
“I’ll never again leave a student for an extended period,” he says. “I will never forget him. That’s why our family stayed home this year.
“Each kid in this school district I feel is my own.”
The Vancouver Sun’s AAS campaign is attempting to raise close to $1 million to meet requests from dozens of schools across the province struggling to help impoverished students, like Hancock’s, with food and clothing.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)