Photo courtesy McMath Secondary
On the Downtown Eastside, poverty, mental illness and homelessness are a reality—a constant, painful reminder of society's woes.
One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, at the start of the 20th century it was the prosperous retail centre of the city.
But then over several decades as businesses began to set up shop elsewhere, desperation and eventually hopelessness began to set in. Today, the crisis has made the use of fentanyl and opioid overdoses commonplace.
In Richmond, one classroom of students at a local high school recognizes the plight and is encouraging their peers to help make a difference—one act at a time.
Under the guidance of the program's long-time teacher DiAnne Simonson, the leadership class at R.A. McMath has taken a seemingly small gesture and made it grow with the help of several elementary school classes. Collecting leftover Halloween candy may not seem like much, but in the hands of many on the Downtown Eastside, it is a gift.
“We had so much candy the Good Shepherd Street Ministry had to make two trips this year (to pick it all up),” says Simonson. “Our final tally was 6,652 bags weighing 761 kilograms. Plus we were able to give them boxes of granola bars, cookies, crackers, licorice and chips. The list goes on and on, and these items did not fit into the candy bags.”
Justine Oye knows how much it means.
Having graduated from Simonson's leadership class in 2008, Oye is now a Grade 6/7 teacher at Ferris Elementary School which took part in the candy campaign.
"Mrs. Simonson has a very special way of introducing initiatives such as this one to her students," Oye says. "I remember being in her class, thinking the most important thing in life was my friends, family, education and sports. However, that mindset changed very quickly when I entered Mrs. Simonson's leadership class that spends the entire year learning about different groups of people that we could support. The initiative of collecting candy for the Good Shepherd Street Ministry (it’s not unusual for them to give out 90 bags of candy per night in addition to food, hope and encouragement) was an eye-opening experience because it is often hard to understand how many children are homeless in our own neighbourhood."
Now as a teacher herself, Oye appreciates that Simonson has allowed elementary schools to help contribute to this cause.
"Students at my school are gaining a better understanding of how many children in B.C. and in Canada are less fortunate than us," Oye says. "Not only that, but they are learning how something as small as donating a few pieces of their Halloween candy can make a world of difference to someone who is less fortunate. Once they begin to develop an understanding of this cause, they pass it along to their friends, their family, and soon there are more and more people making a difference. In fact, the kindergarten students would come and ask every day how much we collected and how many other people we are helping."
Current McMath leadership students Jayna Wilson and Hannah Collins have also clearly been inspired by the project.
“For the past 18 years McMath, as a community, has been involved with this wonderful project,” says Wilson. “We have chosen as a leadership class to partake because leadership is not only shown in class but also around the community.”
Adds Collins: “As students we are often shielded from the sad reality that some adults may have to live. Our actions and words can make a person’s day and influence others to follow in their footsteps. I remember as a kid I would bring my bag of extra candy and put it in a bin in front of my school. Fast forward and here I am able to help bag the candy that is donated.”
Alex Campbell is a former McMath principal who worked alongside Simonson for many years. He retains many positive memories of the leadership students' efforts while aligning with the Good Shepherd Ministry.
"I loved how our middle-class students from suburban Richmond had the chance to see the underbelly of the Lower Mainland," Campbell says.
"Within the walls of our high school we excelled at reading, writing, arithmetic, sports, music and clubs, but we (also) wanted our students to grow up to be educated responsible citizens, who as part of their adult lifestyle would demonstrate social responsibility. We wanted them to work to diminish the societal problems found in all big cities (like) homelessness and mental health issues."
More than ever, says Campbell, there is a need for such programs and for champions like Simonson to guide our youth in the right direction.
"At McMath we did local and global projects, and for the kids who couldn't go global we used to say think globally but act locally," he explains. "There is a lot of important work to do right here in the Lower Mainland (and) among the lasting influences are the attitudes that students develop doing this type of work. A poster in the counselling centre at McMath says simply: 'Attitudes are contagious. Is you're worth catching?'"