Admiral Seymour elementary teacher, Carrie Gelson, never dreamed her letter would have such an effect… The school year had barely begun at Admiral Seymour elementary when teacher Carrie Gelson, frustrated after a difficult day at work, wrote an impassioned open letter to Vancouver residents asking if anyone cared about her inner-city students who were coming to school with empty tummies and holes in their shoes.
The response was astonishing. Just minutes after her plea was published in The Vancouver Sun, donations and offers of help began to arrive at the school, turning into a flood of generosity that continues to this day. For a little school on Keefer Street in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside, the experience has been profound and inspiring.
“Magical” is the word head-teacher Andrea Wilks uses to describe the extraordinary events of the past six weeks, and the magic promises to keep coming. The school has received thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, hundreds of pairs of shoes and socks, scores of warm coats, sweaters and pants in all sizes, and so much snack food for the hungry kids that the cupboards are full to overflowing. She uses file folders to keep track of all the emails and letters, but would need buckets to hold all the love. “It’s overwhelming,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “So many people … It’s just amazing.”
Many donations have already been distributed to children mired in poverty in nearby housing projects and more pile up in the office every day. Gelson’s initial request was for socks, shoes and snacks, and while she got more than enough of those to satisfy the need this year and next, she was stunned by dozens of completely unexpected offers. For example, a woman with a home-based cupcake business now brings sweet treats to the school every month to celebrate students’ birthdays, another woman is outfitting the school’s art room with supplies and a four-foot-high dollhouse, and a North Shore group has offered to create gingerbread houses with the children before Christmas.
Two Surrey mothers drive into Vancouver once a week to spend a half-day helping in the classroom, a young woman who’s studying social work at the University of the Fraser Valley is on hand every Wednesday and two newly graduated teachers who have yet to land jobs are now regular volunteers. In total, the school has 25 new volunteers. Businesses, community organizations, school groups, churches and celebrities have joined individuals from around the Lower Mainland and beyond with offers that exceeded Gelson’s fondest hopes. The Salvation Army is now delivering food regularly for distribution to deserving families, Sport Chek donated more than 100 pairs of new shoes and boots, and more help is coming from the Better Business Bureau. CIBC Wood Gundy is continuing with the hot breakfast program it’s offered at the school for almost 20 years.
A newly graduated teacher, Christopher Lam, now affectionately known at the school as The Gecko Guy, brought exotic animals into classrooms for a biology lesson, the Zajac Foundation has invited two dozen students to spend a weekend on a ranch for children, and teenage star Brendan Meyer arranged to have 60 students watch the taping of his YTV hit show Mr. Young while munching pizza at the Burnaby studio last week. Later this month, a group of Calgary volunteers will visit the school as part of the celebrations leading up to the Grey Cup on Nov. 27. They’ve promised to bring a band, clowns and their mascot along with this year’s Stampede Queen and the Indian Princess to entertain students from Seymour and nearby Strathcona elementary. “It’s been like Christmas,” said Wilks as she laughingly demonstrated the “happy dance” that staff members do as the kindness rolls in.
Gelson, who has taught at Seymour for 16 years, said she expected some reaction when she penned her plea at the end of a rough day, but never imagined it would be so massive. On the day her letter was published, when she arrived at the school at 9 a.m., “People had already dropped off thousands of dollars in cash by that time. They literally drove into work that morning bringing donations.” One of her favorite responses is pinned to the bulletin board in her classroom. It’s a letter, decorated with brightly colored stamps of cars, that reads: “My name is Logan and I am in Grade 2 in Edmonton, I have socks for all of the kids in your class. I hope they like them.”
Gelson believes the community and her small school are developing bonds that will endure. “It’s all about relationships, and once you start to develop a relationship with these children, you feel compelled to come back and to keep supporting them.” Some have chided the teachers for begging for handouts rather than lobbying government for action to eradicate child poverty, but Parry shrugs off the criticism. Policy changes are needed, she said, but someone else will have to fight that battle. “My concern, my urgency is here every day and quite frankly, my students can’t wait. When you’re on the front lines … you take whatever people will give.” Through all of this, Seymour students may be learning the most valuable lesson of all — that their community cares. “When volunteers and donors show up, that means the world to these kids,” Gelson said. “It’s saying ‘you matter to me’ and that’s huge.”