Surrey principal Diana Ellis doesn’t cry very often at work, but she shed tears the day she found help for seven-year-old Anisa.
Anisa is autistic, non-verbal, and was coming to school in agony from a mouth full of rotten teeth.
“When I was told Adopt-A-School would help us I just cried, her mom cried. We were all crying,” said Ellis, who has been principal of Bridgeview Elementary for two years.
“Anisa was really suffering.”
Her mother, Katijah Ibnu, and her husband are refugees from a coastal village in Sumatra that was destroyed by the tsunami of 2004. Twelve members of the mother’s family were killed.
The family now lives near the school that is situated in one of Surrey’s poorest neighbourhoods, where some families — relying on meagre-paying jobs — are struggling to make ends meet.
Of the 150 children in the school, 60, including Anisa, come in each morning hungry and needing breakfast, which is paid for by money raised from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign.
It is one of dozens of Surrey schools seeking help this winter from Adopt-A-School. (Last year, the program sent $437,275 to alleviate poverty affecting children in numerous Surrey schools.)
Bridgeview is also seeking $2,000 to help families facing emergencies, such as when parents have run out of money and food or can’t pay for a prescription for a sick child.
“These are hard-working families trying to be self-sufficient, trying to find work. The emergency funds from The Vancouver Sun lets us support these families in various ways,” said Ellis.
Last year’s emergency fund had been exhausted by the time it was realized Anisa was in trouble. As the school year was winding down, the child was clearly in distress and pain.
“We’d noticed she’d be trying to eat out of one side of her mouth. We could see it was a struggle, and then one day she just stopped eating,” she said.
Her mother said she was scared.
For the previous six months, Anisa’s health had been deteriorating.
“It was hard. She had lots of problems and wasn’t sleeping,” said Ibnu.
Ellis and her mother took her to a dentist. “But she was scared and wouldn’t open her mouth,” said Ellis. “So we took her to a specialty dentist and he couldn’t do it either.”
The family was warned that it would likely cost as much as $5,000 for dental surgery, a sum they had no means to pay.
“We took her to UBC (dental school) and we were referred to B.C. Children’s Hospital and they took a peek into her mouth and estimated it would cost $2,000 for the work.”
Children’s Hospital said it could arrange a payment system of $100 a month.
But the only way the family could afford that was to cut down on food.
“The mom and dad said they would eat less and save the money that way,” said Ellis.
That would have taken 20 months of fasting and Ellis was alarmed at the prospect.
As a last resort, she called Surrey school district’s business development associate director Liane Ricou — who liaises with Adopt-A-School — and told her of the family’s dilemma.
During the last campaign, Vancouver businessman and philanthropist Syd Belzberg donated $57,000 to Adopt-A-School. Belzberg was told that a child needed help and readily agreed to pay for the dental work.
“I don’t cry much here, but I teared up on hearing this,” said Ellis.
Three of Anisa’s teeth were removed, four were filled, caps were put on others, and her remaining teeth were cleaned.
“The before and after effects were dramatic,” said Ellis. “She went back to eating and we could see she was very happy.”
When the dental bill came in, it was less than quoted.
So could the unused money be used to help another family, Ellis asked? Belzberg was happy to allow it.
“We used it for a household suffering from chronic lice and we were able to help them with medication, lice shampoo and new clothing,” said Ellis. “When the government puts money into schools it doesn’t include any of these things.
“The Adopt-A-School money is helping put people back on their feet.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)