Students buzz about a Bear Creek Elementary classroom as the aroma of French toast fills the air.
It’s 7:45 a.m., and school doesn’t start for another 45 minutes, but a couple dozen kids are starting their day a bit earlier than the rest.
A few young boys shoot basketballs at a hoop hooked on a cabinet door, other youngsters sit at desks and play, and laughter abounds.
These children are taking part in a breakfast program the Surrey school district offers at more than 20 schools in neighbourhoods that show high levels of vulnerability.
Outreach worker Jethro Kambere’s day starts even earlier than the children’s.
He often begins his mornings with a “walking school bus,” knocking on the front doors of some of these children to get them out of bed. Together, they make the jaunt to school and have breakfast.
It’s all in an effort to get kids who are chronically absent, or tardy, to school.
“It starts in Kindergarten. We want to break the trend right away before it becomes a pattern,” said Kambere.
Attending school is step one, he said: “You don’t want kids to develop trends they’re going to carry with them their whole life. I want them to understand what’s important to them. It’s important to have a healthy meal, it’s important to be physically active, it’s important to learn.”
The program is part of the Community-Schools Partnership, established in 2007 to provide support to children and their families who may be vulnerable.
And in Surrey, the numbers are high. According to the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition, Surrey has the most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in the region.
It’s a stark reality, but one not specific to Surrey. Last year’s 2015 BC Child Poverty Report Card revealed one in five children in the province lives in poverty.
At the Newton elementary school, Kambere typically handles about 15 cases. On his radar, currently, are brother and sister Chelsea, 11, and Adam, 10, (names changed for privacy reasons).
“Adam was coming late everyday before,” said Kambere.
The youngster would act up in class, wouldn’t listen, or he was outright unresponsive.
Today he’s eager to learn.
“He asked him mom to buy him a dictionary,” Kambere said. “He’s asked me to make him a multiplication chart. He’s started to understand that school is important.”
It’s been refreshing to see Adam’s attitude change, he said.
“One day, it was so bizarre, he got his hair cut, side parted, shirt buttoned up, tucked in, he looked like he was ready for work,” Kambere said proudly. “It was almost symbolic of the change that he’s made.”
Mom Dolores (name also changed) agreed.
“Adam’s been having trouble getting up and getting going. He’s struggling, emotionally, without any kind of a male figure around,” said Dolores.
But Kambere’s influence has changed Adam. Usually hard to get going for the day, Adam jumps out of bed when Kambere comes knocking.
“It’s kind of beyond school. It’s a connection,” Dolores said of the program. “I just think it offers that extra element that some parents just don’t have available to them.”
Being a single mom to three kids, that support is appreciated.
“It’s really helped them, bring up their confidence,” she said. “Whether I’m working morning shifts or after-school shifts, I know they’re able to get up and get to school on time and get breakfast.”
The Surrey mother is particularly thankful to have after-school support through another district program, which offers help with homework and even outings to places such as Science World and Extreme Air.
“Before, it was my oldest (a 16-year-old) kind of watching them from kind of right after school until about 9 sometimes,” said Dolores. “Knowing they’re getting help with homework, maybe getting a snack, maybe going places… They have opportunities outside of what I would ever be able to give them.
“The system itself is not perfect. I believe that there are so many gaps, and I think this helps fill a bit of that gap.”