Alumni like Peter Young make Christmas possible for many Downtown Eastside families

Alumni like Peter Young make Christmas possible for many Downtown Eastside families

Since 1999, Lord Strathcona and Britannia Secondary have received more than $800,000 from the Hearts of Gold Foundation.

Scattered throughout Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside tonight are families whose Christmas would be anything but merry without the efforts of Jason Eng, principal of Lord Strathcona elementary and generous donors including a former student who never forgot where he came from.

It was Eng who organized hampers of gifts, food, and grocery cards that were distributed to 180 families too poor to feed themselves through the holidays with funds donated by a number of charitable agencies.

One was Hearts of Gold, administered by Peter Young who made a $20,000 donation to the school through The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School (AAS) campaign.

Part of it went to buy some of the hampers. The rest will provide food and clothing to sustain families throughout the year.

For Young it was another of the gifts he has made to the schools he attended while growing up on the Downtown Eastside — an area that’s long been a byword for poverty and social calamity.

Since 1999 Lord Strathcona and Britannia Secondary have received more than $800,000 from his Hearts of Gold Foundation.

“When I started making a few bucks I thought it was time to give some back. Those schools had been good to me,” said Young. “So I got a few friends together like Peter Joe at Sunrise Tofu and asked them to chip in.”

In 1967 when Young was five his family — mom, dad and five children — lived on Jackson Ave. in one of the subsidized housing projects.

“My dad was earning a buck and a quarter an hour pumping gas. Yeah, we were poor,” said Young.

Most of his memories of Lord Strathcona are good, but not all.

“I was in Grade 1 and my dad called the school and wanted to speak to me. I got sent to the office but the secretary didn’t want to give me the phone because she said I might have lice.”

Young remembers his lunch being stolen and thinking it was a prank.

“We’d put our lunch boxes in our cubby hole in the coat room and I’d come and find mine empty. I never realized one of my classmates was so hungry they needed to steal my food.

“I know it now and nothing’s changed in all those years. Still hungry kids.”

Through education, hard work and application Young would go from poverty to plenty and today is the owner of a successful business, Top Ten School Wear.

The firm’s premises on SE Marine Drive, however, are a veritable cabinet of curiosities.

There are the school uniforms which make up the bulk of Top Ten’s business, but over in a corner is a small hand press, some gold imprinting foil and a set of metal dies with the various logos of U.S. government agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency.

And in the week before Christmas — as unlikely as it sounds — Young could be found placing dark blue neckties embossed with the CIA’s logo into boxes ready to be shipped to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

This is just one of his numerous federal and state government clients from the U.S. — some he can’t name — for whom he provides specialty items such as ties, banners and scarfs.

“Yeah, some years ago David Petraeus, when he was director of the CIA, wanted us to strip our Top Ten label off the back of the ties and have it replaced with his signature as director.

“I said ‘sure, send us an electronic file of the signature and we’ll stitch it on.’”

In 2005 he discovered Strathcona Elementary had stopped sending its Grade 7 class to Victoria for the annual tour of the legislature because there was no money to do it.

“That trip was the highlight of being at school. I remember my brother going when I was in Grade 5 and thinking ‘I can’t wait.’”

Every year since he has paid the full shot to take the Grade 7s to Victoria.

“I’m told the kids are so excited they’re out in the basketball court shooting hoops at 5 a.m. waiting for the bus to arrive.

“It’s the same as when I was a kid — many of them have never been on a bus to the North Shore let alone a ferry to Victoria.”

His first donation to Britannia was in 1999, a thank you for the effort teachers had put in to keep him and his friends out of trouble by donating their spare time and weekends organizing sports and tournaments.

“Bill Woods was principal then and I said ‘I’m giving you $10,000’ and he thought I was nuts. But Bill was a counsellor when I was in Grade 9 and brought bear spray to school — those days you could buy it off the back of a comic — just to try it out and I sprayed it into the vent in the classroom and everyone started choking.

“I was sent to the office and l was lucky ‘cause the principal and vice principal were out so they called Mr. Woods. He gave me a lecture, took the bear spray, put it in a drawer and said ‘don’t do that again.’

“Today that would be a full-blown emergency — police, fire department and paramedics, the school’s evacuated, the teacher goes on stress leave and you’re kicked out.

“So I owe the school. If someone bails you out you remember.”

He also remembers what Christmas is like when there’s not much money in the house.

“Yeah, so I’m glad we’re able to help.”


By Gerry Bellett (

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