Last December, Jeremy Law, the general manager of Blundell Seafoods in Richmond, not only sent cases of canned tuna to schools where hunger was prevalent, but followed up with an offer to employ older students struggling with poverty. “It was a brilliant offer,” said Sarah McKay, a member of Surrey’s Safe Schools Team, who gladly accepted it.
The team is a joint project of the Surrey school district and the RCMP. Its Wraparound Program is designed to help students who are in trouble with the law as a result of poverty and resorting to what McKay describes as “street survival” tactics.
Hunger and privation can cause some students to steal what they need, join gangs or place themselves in danger of sexual exploitation.
“They get desperate when they are hungry or don’t have a winter coat, and they will do what they need to survive. It’s what we are trying to prevent,” she said. “Schools – which these families rely on for food – are closed over Christmas and it can be a bad time for them.”
“Some don’t have sheets on the bed, or have the heat turned off. They need shoes or socks, toiletries, diapers, warm clothes, a bit of food. It doesn’t take a lot of money to help them,” she said.
But the team, which has a caseload of 135 at-risk students, has no money for dispensing emergency aid in its budget.
It is asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $10,000 to help its most impoverished children get through the Christmas school break.
Jobs would help, but it is hard to find work as employers do criminal record checks.
However, a year ago, Law said he would overlook this when The Sun asked if his job offer could be made available to the Surrey team for their high-risk students.
It resulted in jobs for five teenagers in the plant on River Road. Four had only limited success and left for a variety of reasons, said McKay.
“We knew the location was going to be an issue as it takes over an hour on public transit to reach the plant. But it provided a safe space for these kids to see what it’s like holding a job in the real world.
“Jeremy and his staff had great patience with these kids. He’s incredibly generous and understanding. It didn’t work out with some, but it was a great learning experience for us all,” said McKay.
The students were paid above minimum wage and Law offered to help with post-secondary education if they stayed with the company. They were given day shifts, provided bus tickets and often lunch when they didn’t have anything to eat.
Four quit, but 17-year-old Claudine Dushimirimana persevered despite it taking more than an hour on the SkyTrain and buses to reach the plant.
Dushimirimana is not officially part of the Wraparound Program. She has never been in trouble with the law, and it’s her ambition to become a police officer.
But her family circumstances – she lives with her grandmother and two younger brothers, all refugees from Zimbabwe – came to the team’s attention and McKay felt a job would really help them all out.
“I worked in July five days a week,” said Dushimirimana. “I wanted to spend Fridays and Saturdays with my cousins, so they let me work from Sunday to Thursday.”
Now back at school, she works just on Sundays.
“They don’t treat you as an employee, but as a friend. Everyone here is nice to me,” she said.
She had planned to save her summer money to buy a car, but a family emergency intervened. She plans to try again next summer.
Law describes her as the perfect employee.
“She’s a good worker, excellent.
She’s not someone who wanders around. If she hasn’t anything to do, she’ll come and ask for something else to work on.
“If she stays with us to postsecondary, we’ll provide a scholarship. And we are going to take care of her prom. It’ll all be paid for. We’ll get her a dress and shoes, everything – my mother’s taken her under her wing,” he said.
Law is still donating tins of tuna to schools. And last year, he had offered fresh and frozen seafood, too, but schools were unable to take it due to concerns about handling.
But he hasn’t stopped there. Law sent $9,000 that will be used to buy emergency weekend food for families attending Mount PleasantElementary in Vancouver.
“We are just trying to help out where we can,” said Law.
Meanwhile, Jon Ross, McKay’s colleague, said the Wraparound team wanted to provide for all its families over the Christmas period. Funds are needed to buy food, clothes, even space heaters to keep some families warm.
“Some of these guys are really struggling and we need to help them,” said Ross.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)