For many middle-class professionals, it is fair to say that poverty — as a condition of life — is something they can only imagine.
Not having enough money to feed your children, food bank lineups, distressed housing, lack of adequate clothing — it requires a flight of fancy to put themselves into those situations.
Not so for Joe Leibovitch, principal of Surrey’s Old Yale Road Elementary school in the heart of Whalley.
For him, all it takes is memory.
“My mom was a single mom on social assistance and, yeah, it was never a great feeling to have to go to the food bank and prove we needed (help). And being in that lineup? I know how it feels,” said Leibovitch.
Having an informed empathy for the impoverished children he sees each day at school removes the temptation to become inured to their suffering, but does nothing to relieve it.
For that, he needs money because he has 30 children and their families who won’t eat during the weekends unless he comes up with $10,000 to get them through the year.
Not that he needs any incentive, but he is reminded at least once a week just what extreme hunger looks like.
“Either me or Victoria (Pecson, the school’s outreach worker) will see it. A kid comes in, they can’t focus, they are tired. But one of the extreme things is, they’ll throw up.
“They are so hungry, their stomach is so upset, they’ll puke. But it’s just bile that comes up. It’s not unusual for us to see kids being sick like this because of hunger.
“But every time you see it, you still think, ‘Holy crap.’”
His school is one of the many inner-city Surrey schools that are asking The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for help in the midst of a pandemic that is sweeping many families into poverty who were capable of fending for themselves just a year ago.
Since 2011, the Adopt-A-School campaign has raised more than $6.5 million to feed and clothe impoverished children, with a significant amount going to Surrey — the largest school district in the province.
Last year, Adopt-A-School sent approximately $600,000 to Surrey — $418,000 to feed and clothe children at school, then an emergency $182,000 to feed children and families after schools closed due to the pandemic.
Old Yale Road Elementary has 411 students and has received Adopt-A-School help to buy food for its breakfast and lunch programs and emergency funds to provide food at weekends for some of its most desperate families.
“We have a diverse population here, new immigrants, refugee families, a lot of families living in poverty or are working poor — parents doing two or three jobs just to try to take care of their kids — grandparents who are looking after kids, some parents dealing with mental health issues.
“And when it comes to helping families at weekends, we could easily triple that number, but we have to be strategic and choose the most needy,” said Leibovitch.
Volunteers from Relate Church in the 6700-block of 152nd Street work with the school and shop for food hampers, which are distributed to families on Fridays.
One of those families has a mother who carries a calculator into the grocery store, says Pecson.
“She’s a single mom with four kids and her daughter thought it was weird she’s using a calculator, but this is someone literally counting pennies. Being able to give her weekend food is a big help.”
COVID has disproportionately affected a lot of lower-income families, says Leibovitch.
“We have a woman who got stuck outside of the country because of COVID, came back and found her cleaning job had gone.
“It’s brought additional expense and stress to families who were financially struggling but now need to get access to WiFi or need a computer or a tablet for their children (because schools have switched to distance learning for part of the curriculum) and that’s putting a lot of pressure on their basic needs like food and clothing,” he said.
“It has huge mental health implications, and I’ve heard from police officers that the amount of distress calls they are getting from families that are in need is really high.”
The pandemic has reduced access to medical services, counselling and mental health services, and access to government social assistance departments. The consequences of all this is plain from the increased anxiety and need Leibovitch sees in parents and children.
“I have a dad who quit his job because he’s nervous and anxious about COVID and needs to stay home and tutor his daughter who’s learning online. He’s struggling financially, but he’s doing what he thinks is best for his daughter. It’s something I’ve never seen before.”
As well as feeding children and families, the school also struggles with keeping children properly clothed now that winter is coming, says Pecson.
“We are finding kids showing up in shorts or without a jacket. We have a wonderful community here that gives us (used) clothing, but sometimes we don’t have jackets that fit,” said Pecson.
So what happens then?
There is a bit of an embarrassed silence before she answers: “Well, then you just have to bite the bullet for these kids because at the end of the day there’s not an optimal way to deal with that. For these kids to thrive, we need to take care of their personal needs.”
That’s a roundabout way of saying, “Well, I just go out and buy the coat myself,” which she did recently and has done numerous times before.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)