Linda Chau, principal of Surrey’s Mary Jane Shannon Elementary, was two years old in 1980 when her family — boat people who had fled Vietnam — were admitted to Canada after spending 18 months as refugees in Hong Kong.
Every weekday morning, Linda Chau, principal of Surrey’s Mary Jane Shannon Elementary, does a sweep of the grounds and watches the first children arriving at school — invariably hungry and, at times, ill-clothed, wet and cold.
Some are newly minted Surrey citizens — refugees. Strangers in a strange land.
And no matter how many times she does her rounds, Chau can never survey the scene without getting a lump in her throat.
“When I see one bringing in his younger siblings … I think of myself taking my little sister to the breakfast program at Strathcona Elementary (in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside).
“I get really emotional. For me, this is personal.”
That’s because she was once a refugee herself, heading like today’s children toward the warmth and comfort of a provided breakfast.
Chau was two years old in 1980 when her family — boat people who had fled Vietnam — was admitted to Canada after spending 18 months as refugees in Hong Kong.
So the travails of the poor, the migrant and refugee families whose children attend her school in north Surrey, are a lived experience for Chau.
Her family lived in a tiny apartment off Prior Street in Vancouver, a neighbourhood that includes the poorest postal code in Canada. And they needed the food support supplied by Strathcona Elementary.
“It took my parents a while to get on their feet. But they had a work ethic and walked everywhere knocking on doors trying to find work.”
Her father found a job in Chinatown and her mother worked as a seamstress and also washed dishes.
“My dad worked during the day, and my mum at night.”
That’s something not unusual for parents relying on minimum wage jobs.
Her school is part of the district’s Attendance Matters program, which feeds children whose parents are struggling to provide sufficient food after paying rent and other expenses.
“Being fed is essential for children to learn. It also helps parents whose money isn’t stretching to cover the basics,” she said.
Studies show children with poor attendance in early grades are more likely to drop out before graduation, so food is being used as an incentive to get impoverished children to stay in school.
Surrey needs $100,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign to buy food for the hundreds of children in the 19 schools that Attendance Matters feeds each day.
This year, an anonymous donor is offering to match Attendance Matters donations up to $50,000.
The school also needs $2,500 to clothe children.
“Our students are missing a lot of essential items — rain boots, mittens, socks, winter coats,” said Chau. “For families coming from countries with a warmer climate, a Canadian winter can be shocking.”
Some children are wearing hand-me-downs, or clothing and footwear that are too big.
“They need the right-sized clothing, and it’s important their shoes fit properly. Parents do their best, but some children come in wearing the same clothes day in and day out.”
Having Adopt-A-School emergency funds allows her to “get them a new pair of pants, new undergarments, new socks and boots and winter coats.”
Every morning, Chau sits with the children at breakfast, and at noon she will be at the pantry and clothes closet distributing food and garments.
“I want to make sure our children get what they need. I’m the living proof of how these programs will benefit children. Without these supports? Well, they were critical for me and my family.
“I see myself in these children, and I see my parents in their parents. And I know providing these children with food and basic needs is taking a huge load off their families.
“For me, it feels like my life has come full circle. I was served, and now I am serving.
“Seeing these children reminds me so much of myself. It’s very emotional.”
MARY JANE SHANNON FUNDRAISING PAGE HERE
By Gerry Bellett (email@example.com)