NANAIMO — Brett Hancock, principal of the alternative school system in Nanaimo, has learned that for a number of his students facing financial hardships, academic success can be explained by a simple equation: food + clothes = graduation.
That is why he is grateful to the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for providing the food and clothing that kept some students — one who was homeless — tethered to the school long enough for them to graduate with their Dogwood Diplomas.
Last year, Adopt-A-School sent $10,000 to the school after a donation from Vancouver businessman and philanthropist Barj Dhahan, who has supported Adopt-A-School since 2011.
“What you guys did for us last year allowed us to get some cooking equipment as well as food,” said Hancock, who is responsible for 225 students in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district’s Learning Alternatives program. “This turned one student from being someone who never attended to now being in a work training program, who is going to graduate a semester early this year, and who will be employed by the time she graduates.
“That help, it’s life-changing. You have helped get kids off the street and across the graduation stage, and we’ll be forever grateful.”
Since that story ran a year ago, the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Schools Foundation has expanded a program to provide food for students in every school who are coming in hungry, including Hancock’s.
“We don’t want to leave anyone behind,” said Crystal Davidson, the foundation’s executive-director.
When the program began two years ago, it provided food to just a few schools, but the need is everywhere, Davidson said. They are now delivering food to 34 schools.
“In some schools, it’s just for a few children. Other schools have many needing help. We want this to be a universal program for all students in need,” she said.
The foundation will need to distribute about $250,000 worth of food this year.
It has set up a food depot in the old Woodlands Secondary School, which was closed some years ago. The depot collects food from the food bank and other sources, while the foundation receives donations from corporate sponsors and community organizations.
“We get about $100,000 worth of food in kind. The rest we need to buy,” she said.
The foundation is asking Adopt-A-School for $25,000.
In addition, 11 schools in Nanaimo are directly seeking help from Adopt-A-School for a total of $57,600. Most of the money is to feed and clothe children.
Overall, Nanaimo-Ladysmith schools are asking for $82,600 from Adopt-A-School.
Part of the former Woodlands school also houses Hancock’s alternative program.
His school needs $5,000 to clothe students who arrive at school without proper coats or shoes suitable for the weather, who need pants and shirts because they are either worn out or, often, the only set of clothes they have.
“We need to get them warm clothes because a lot of our kids spend a great deal of time walking from bus stop to bus stop to get to school, and some are walking around trying to find a residence to crash in,” he said.
Walking around trying to find somewhere to sleep indicates a state of, at least, temporary homelessness.
A student he had never seen before came in one day saying he wanted to get his Grade 12 graduation, Hancock said.
“He hadn’t been in school for two years. He was dressed quite well, had good manners, and I asked what he’d been doing. He said he’d been working. But his girlfriend was pregnant and he wanted his graduation diploma before the baby was born.
“Well, he started attending five days a week and he would cook lunches and often breakfasts at our school sites so he could earn his elective credits.
“What we didn’t know until he dropped his guard a bit was that he was living in a tent out near Colliery Dam Park. But having food (here) allowed this kid to feel safe,” he said.
The student had a troubled background.
“He came from an abusive home and he left in Grade 10 and started to fend for himself. He spent a lot of time on the couches of friends, and when their parents started to ask why he couldn’t go home, he’d just move on.
“He shared (with me) that he could go home, but he didn’t feel safe and knew he would make poor choices around drugs and alcohol and he needed to be clean for his baby.
“His girlfriend came from loving parents and a safe home, but they knew his family and held it against him, so he couldn’t stay with them. He needed to graduate so he could get a job to cover the rent.
“Once we knew his circumstances, we were able to help him with food. He graduated with honours and is now living in Saskatchewan with his wife and two kids and is employed as a gas-fitter.
“Thank you, Vancouver Sun Adopt-A-School. You improve the life chances of our students.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)