The usual range of stresses on low-income families with children at Royal Heights elementary has been exacerbated by the pandemic
Royal Heights Elementary is one of the smallest schools in the Surrey school district but the social challenges facing its 211 students are the toughest that principal Ruth Mrak has seen.
“I’ve been in six elementary schools in Surrey but, in terms of the things families are struggling with, this school is certainly the most complex,” said Mrak, who came to the school four months ago.
“We have families able to take care of themselves and others who are working hard just to make ends meet. But it’s been tough for them because of COVID,” she said.
“Some families are facing layer upon layer of problems, financial, emotional, physical, mental — families who are working hard for their kids but are hit on so many different levels.
“They are working at low-paying jobs and trying to find daycare for their children, then they are hit by a housing crisis or job losses — it’s one hurdle after another. We help them get past one thing and they are hit with something else.
“We try to find a system that will support them but we know that the system is swamped as well,” said Mrak.
This is why The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School, or AAS, campaign — which provides money to the school to feed hungry children breakfast and lunch as well as emergency funds to help families when they have nowhere else to turn — is so important, she said.
The emergency fund for Royal Heights is provided to AAS by Pacific Custom Brokers, a Surrey company which has supported The Sun’s campaign for a number of years.
When she arrived at the school, Mrak was amazed to find she had emergency funds to help families in crisis.
“I’ve never been in a school where I’ve had this support,” she said.
“As administrators we’ve always had a little bit — and I mean a little bit — of flexibility in our budget but when I came here and found I had the ability to support families in ways I never could have done before — it’s truly staggering.”
She has been able to buy clothes for children coming to school inappropriately dressed or in need of boots, mitts and hats now winter is coming. She can provide food cards so families without food can eat.
“I had a boy coming to school wearing the same clothes every day. We were able to buy him new clothes. Some families are not able to get things together for their children, but I can say ‘don’t worry. I can hand you child what they need.’”
The year AAS is attempting to raise almost $300,000 for the Surrey school district so it can provide meals, clothes and other necessities to impoverished children and families.
More than 100 schools throughout the province are seeking almost $1 million from AAS this year as the pandemic has forced many families who have lost employment into poverty.
A single mother with a nine-year-old child attending Royal Heights and a new baby to care for told The Sun how much the school has done for her family.
The support she has received because of AAS has removed a lot of stress in her life, she said.
“It’s been a big support every day. Before COVID and having my baby I worked very hard at a low paying job (in a restaurant) sometimes six or seven days a week and it was only enough to cover the rent,” she said.
“I am not kidding — it was choosing between paying rent of $1,200 or buying food to feed my family,” she said.
Fortunately, the school has been able to supply the family’s food.
“It picks up the half I can’t do,” she said. “I can’t get back to work because of COVID and I have no child care and the school is helping me with clothing and food.”
The help comes from school’s Aboriginal support worker, Brianna Bell.
“She didn’t just give me a gift card, she drove me to get groceries and carried them in because I was pregnant,” said the mother.
When the school closed in the spring because of the pandemic, Bell did all the shopping for the family. “She did it, so me and my children could stay home and be safe,” the mother said.
Bell said families are proud and want to do their best for their children, and don’t want to ask for support even when they need it.
But having an emergency fund to help them can break down that barrier.
“We can say ‘Here, we know you are struggling with money. Here’s a gift card. It will help you feed your kids.’
“They know it’s coming from the heart and it’s no reflection on them so ‘can I make it a little easier for you?’ ”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)