An inner-city school run on "a wing and a prayer" is going to town on the prayer these days as deadly violence hits close to home.
"It seems like there is nothing left to do but pray," said Francine Wiebe, the principal and founder of Freedom International School on Sargent Avenue. After 40 homicides so far this year, Winnipeg's mayor, the premier and prime minister have been called on to do something. Vigils, gatherings, a march and town hall meetings have brought residents together looking for solutions.
"Our school has been deeply rattled by these recent homicides," Wiebe said.
The school opened in 2018 to nurture newcomer youth who were at risk of dropping out. On Friday, starting at 7 a.m., it is hosting 72 hours of fasting and prayer.
"It's a biblical response to the pain around here," said Zachary Ferguson-Baird, who volunteers at the West End school before work every day, picking up some of the students, driving them there and tutoring them in math. He said the Christian radio station CHVN, coincidentally, is also having a day of prayer for the city, on Friday.
"I feel like things are getting dangerous," said Grade 12 student Prince Busime. "The city has gone totally upside down," he said. "People have died that I've known. It shouldn't be happening. It's sad," said Busime, 18. He was a toddler when he and his mom and younger brother fled fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and moved to South Africa. There, refugees were not welcome, and he missed a lot of school.
In Canada in 2018, he was among the first 20 students, aged 13 to 21, to enrol at Freedom International School. Assessments indicated they were reading at levels that ranged from five to nine years behind their Canadian peers. The school, which is fully accredited, relies heavily on volunteer tutors who help students one-on-one.
It isn’t eligible for provincial funding during its first three years, and stays afloat thanks to donations and fundraisers. In August, it moved from a renovated machine shop on Notre Dame Avenue to Mission Baptist Church, which has more room and facilities for the same rent. They have access to a commercial kitchen to feed the students, with donations from Hutterite colonies, Winnipeg Harvest and others. On Thursday, cook MaryAnn Funk turned a box of squash from the Hutterites into a spaghetti squash casserole with onions and ham from Winnipeg Harvest.
The school has charitable status and can issue tax receipts. On Thursday, Wiebe handed a folded-up personal cheque and a $50-bill from donors to a delighted school administrator, who handles the books and runs the office.
It just started paying a meagre salary to its staff and teachers, such as Shonette Babb.
"It felt like this is where I need to be," said Babb, 42, who had wanted to teach elementary school but has connected with the young people at Freedom International. Some of the male students have confided in Babb how shaken they are by recent violence that has affected people they've known, she said.
"I said 'It's important that you think about the choices you're making and the people you're hanging out with, and where.'"
Busime is well aware of that. The West End resident said he sticks close to school and home. In February, he will be one of the first graduates of the school. He plans to study law.
"I love defending people who don't have a chance... I love debating," said the linebacker-sized young man.
After he graduates, he'll work until he starts university. "I'm going to keep myself up and running and in a good routine."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.