SURREY — Dan Kehler has heard too many stories about Surrey-area students who wake up hungry and then hurry to school in search of something to eat.
“A lot of them haven’t eaten since the day before, at school,” the Surrey fire captain said. “They had nothing the night before and they’re not getting breakfast at home. That hunger is waking them up early and they’re getting to school for those pancakes, some chocolate milk, cereal. I mean, that’s sad, and that’s wrong, so if we can make a bit of a difference and give them a fair start, that’s why we’re here.”
On Tuesday, from a rear door at the Costco store in Newton, Kehler and close to 50 other off-duty firefighters loaded boxes and bags of food into their own trucks for delivery, ultimately, to local schools, as part of a Nutritional Snack Program first organized 20 years ago.
This year’s “September blitz” is a milestone for the program, organized by Surrey Fire Fighters Charitable Society and planned by Kehler since the start.
“I was a junior guy on the job at the time (in 1997),” he recalled. “We started with four schools and we pushed carts up and down the aisles here, just loading them up.”
Today, the program covers 125 schools in Surrey and has grown – and been honed, with the help of a Surrey Schools-supplied nutritionist several years ago – to include a wider range of food, including fruit, granola bars, juice, cereal, pancake mix and syrup, bread, bagels, cheese and other items.
“We’re just under $60,000 today, and we’ll spend around the $150,000 mark during the school year this year, just for this program,” said Dylan Van Rooyen, treasurer with Surrey Fire Fighters’ Association and a charitable society board member.
The food loaded into trucks Tuesday will be stored for a few days at local fire halls. School administrators use a computerized system to place orders for needed food items, and then on-duty firefighters deliver the goods to schools in the neighbourhood.
“We want the crews to know their schools, to know their principals and childcare workers, so all this food will end up at the firehalls around Surrey, they’ll divvy it up there, and go from south to north – I mean, we go everywhere,” Kehler explained. “There are pockets of need everywhere, even in the affluent areas. It’s not always where we expect it to be.”
The program’s “September blitz,” as the firefighters call it, is timed with the return to school.
“We load them up, and the idea is to give those 125 schools a couple of months of supplies, right at the start,” Kehler noted. “And then roughly every month we do top-up orders during the entire school year. So it’s $60,000 today and then another 90K through the rest of the school year.”
The program was given a provincial grant of $100,000 in 2016, according to a post at surreyfirefighters.com, and The Balsor family has donated more than $500,000 to it over the past several years, Kehler noted.
“This program is funded largely by the Surrey firefighters, in a payroll-deduction system – that’s how it’s worked for 20 years, mostly,” he added.
“This is a program that is near and dear to all of our members, and it’s never been a challenge to get support for it. Who we try to reach are the kids who come to school with little or nothing, because teachers have told us, time and time again, that a child focused on the pit in their stomach can’t learn well. We believe strongly that every child deserves a fair shot, and this is our way to help. It’s just a small piece of a bigger puzzle, but we know that if their not distracted by hunger, they’ll learn more.”