HAGENSBORG — There are three exits to the outside world from this community in the Bella Coola Valley: ferry, light aircraft, or a five-hour trip along an occasionally paved logging road listed as one of the most dangerous stretches of highway — if that’s the proper word — in the province.
“I know people have chickened out driving (Highway 20 east to Williams Lake), who’ve said ‘I need a plane’. There’s a part of the road called the Hill at Heckman Pass that the government won’t pave because of the grade.
“But still it’s very beautiful.”
Principal Scott Barnes says Sir Alexander MacKenzie Secondary might be one of the most isolated schools in the province, but it shares all the problems that can be found in the middle of major cities or in the densely populated suburbs of the Lower Mainland — widespread hunger among impoverished students.
And given that half of his 100 students have been identified by social services as needing attention, his problems might well be worse.
Jobs that once existed in canneries or with the big logging companies have vanished.
Tourism jobs have taken a hit from the pandemic, bringing even more poverty into this valley with a population of 1,800.
It’s inevitable, then, that students are arriving at school without breakfast, with inadequate or no food for lunch, or with insufficient food at home.
“Last year, we ran food hampers, and the demand was bonkers. We were giving people crates of food and they were still starving,” said Barnes.
“Some of the houses in town are composite, multi-family arrangements where you have four different generations including in-laws in a condo that my wife and I and our two kids would find tight.
“So a kid comes in from a situation like that where there may not be enough food to go around, and It’s like Disney’s Aladdin — Aladdin’s starving so he steals a loaf of bread and then gives it to two other kids because they are hungrier than he is.
“Kids are falling asleep because they are hungry. Their parents are giving them Cheez Whiz smeared on crackers. Some of our kids don’t get enough sleep at home because they are providing child care — they will have been up all night changing diapers and they are exhausted.”
He lets them sleep in the school’s sick room.
Food here is expensive and Barnes said groceries come in once a week by truck.
“There was a mum who would do her best and get groceries for everyone, but her boyfriend and her oldest son were like locusts. They’d eat everything in the house within two days of grocery day.
“The two youngest siblings, who were students of mine, were always starving. You could see it in how drawn they were and we would offer them food.
“But it was always, ‘No, we don’t need it — someone else needs it more.’”
It was another example of the desperate pride Barnes is attempting to overcome to ensure hunger doesn’t interfere with his students’ ability to learn.
“There’s a barrier of pride and shame. Can you imagine being starving and not taking help because you are ashamed? It’s crippling.”
What happened next with this family was extraordinary.
“It might sound insane, but we ran an organization called the Junior Canadian Rangers — it’s like the cadets and the militia — it’s part of the Canadian Forces reserve sponsored by the regular forces.
“We asked our junior ranger instructor if he could get us $5,000 worth of army rations, and he said sure. So we’d give a box of rations every couple of weeks to this family and tell them, ‘Hey, can you do us a favour and review this stuff and let us know how it tastes?’
“They took the food and were eating it, and that way they learned to accept help.”
Barnes has moved on from feeding by subterfuge and is now providing a no-questions-asked breakfast and lunch program in the school for anyone who wants it to eliminate any resistance from impoverished students who would not eat because it might single them out.
“It’s been transformative in terms of student conduct — a decrease in the number of referrals to the office. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of students who agree to accept counselling because, through food, they feel more connected to the school and the community and say, ‘I trust this place’. These are kids who never would have asked for help.”
At one time the school’s breakfast program consisted of a toaster, bread and some peanut butter located in an alcove.
“There was an identifiable sub-set of students who accessed it, and we knew there were others who wouldn’t go there and grab a slice of toast because of the association,” said Barnes.
“A universal food program removes the stigma, and we know all the ones that really need help are getting it.”
This latest version of hunger elimination was set up this year using a one-time $14,000 grant from the Breakfast Club of Canada and some funds from the school district, but it will all run out soon.
He is asking the Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $20,000 to get him through to the end of the school year.
Barnes admits the program is unsustainable, and next year he will have to introduce a user-fee system for lunch.
“We’ll make it low enough so everyone will pay who can, and we’ll use that money to subsidize the other kids.
“But we’re a bit worried about losing buy-in because as soon as Johnny All-Star stops coming people will go, ‘Yeah, it’s just for poor kids.’”
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By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)