Adopt-A-School: Vulnerable and needy in Nanaimo

Adopt-A-School: Vulnerable and needy in Nanaimo

“Some people think this is a high-end area but they don’t see how some families are living in basement suites,” she said.

Susan M’Gonigle has trouble picking out the right words when asked to describe how some of the children attending Rock City Elementary appear when they come to school in the morning.

Euphemisms don’t work and accuracy could be a bit too brutal, so she demurs.

“Let’s just say they are hungry and often their clothing and footwear is inadequate. You see shoes with holes in being worn in the snow and flip flops when it’s raining,” said M’Gonigle, a community schools coordinator.

This school of 397 students on Departure Bay Road is designated as a “focus school” by the school district — one of eight in the city — which means it has a high rate of vulnerable and needy students.

“Nanaimo is a pretty poor city. We have one of the highest percentages of low income families in B.C. — 22.7 per cent,” said M’Gonigle.

The area around the school is home to a growing number of transient and vulnerable families living in basement or illegal suites and this is increasing every year, she says.

“People are beginning to spread out more and more as they try and find more reasonable rents.”

And some families require assistance. Some of them are large families and some are new to Nanaimo.

The school is seeking $3,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School (AAS) campaign so it can take care of more than 20 children who come to school hungry each day and need breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The school serves about 45 meals a day for kids who have not been fed and often come in with little or no food.

Lisha De-Vries, the volunteer coordinator of the school’s meals program, said their need was to feed the children so they were capable of learning.  Signs of poverty in the school are clearly visible.

“Some people think this is a high-end area but they don’t see how some families are living in basement suites,” she said.

The breakfast program started five years ago when teachers began noticing the hungry state of the children arriving in the morning.

At first a church group ran it three mornings a week, but the need forced the program to expand to five days a week.

The church had limited resources and demand was increasing, said M’Gonigle, so they went to the food bank for supplies.

Then two years ago she applied to The Sun for help.

AAS provided the school (and others in the city) with funds for its breakfast program as well as money to buy winter coats, shoes and pants for students.

The money helped families having trouble paying rent as well as providing food, clothing and transportation for themselves, she said.

“I don’t ask parents how they make their choices (on what they spend) but we are trying to alleviate some of their food costs,” M’Gonigle said.

This is necessary because some families without transportation find it difficult to get to the food bank or the Salvation Army or other social services as these are located in the town centre.

“If they don’t have transportation and can’t afford bus fares they might not be able to get to the food bank when they need,” she said.

On Fridays children take home any leftover food in the school fridge to help their families get through the weekend.

Meanwhile, there has been an improvement in the food served for breakfast.

“You guys have changed the face of food in my schools,” said M’Gonigle.

“I used to have to go to the food bank for what we could get but now I can buy food for our kids like they were my own kids,” she said.

“For clothing I was able to take advantage of Sears closing down and Superstore sales and was able to give coats and shoes and pants with the labels still on so the kids could see they weren’t getting hand-me-downs but something new — all thanks to Adopt-A-School.

“And did they ever need it.

“It just warmed my heart being able to provide this for them.”

By Gerry Bellett (

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