Schools have closed their doors to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, but a Winnipeg high school is still going the extra mile to help feed the families of students in need.

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This article was published 2/4/2020 (405 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Schools have closed their doors to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, but a Winnipeg high school is still going the extra mile to help feed the families of students in need.

On a snowy Thursday morning, the halls of St. John’s High School in the city’s hardscrabble north end were eerily quiet, but the school’s food bank, launched about 2 1/2 years ago, was open for business.

It has been providing food hampers to about 100 families, but this week — at the urging of the school’s benefactor, the Walter & Maria Schroeder Foundation — that number soared to 150 because of the rapidly increasing need during the global pandemic.

In pre-pandemic times, the routine was, once a week at the end of classes, students in need of food aid would pick up their family’s hamper at school and take it home themselves.

Under the new reality, with classrooms dark and students hunkered down at home, the school’s three community outreach workers are packing the food, loading the hampers into their vehicles, then delivering them to the doorsteps of families in need.

The outreach workers normally focus on building relationships with the families of students who struggle to attend classes, but now their mission is all about delivering food, homework packets, and a sense of hope amid a pandemic that is not only threatening health, but crushing the economy.

"For me, it’s just been a bit overwhelming," outreach worker Tom Rossi said Thursday, becoming misty-eyed as he struggled to contain his emotions. "When the kids see us at the door, and we know how grateful they are. They are so appreciative. We know every family and child needs food.

"For these families, the food we give them makes such a difference … We always try to have a little communication, a little conversation with the families. It’s not just delivering groceries."

Rossi, 59, who began working at St. John’s about two years ago after 11 years as principal at Robert H. Smith School in River Heights, has been donating his time this week during what was supposed to be spring break.

"Last week, I had a mom say, ‘Mr. Rossi, I just want to hug you, but I know I can’t.’ That’s the reaction from the families. The kids wanted to give a fist-bump, but we have to stand six feet back."

Standing amid hundreds of bags of food lining a hallway and the walls of a classroom, his colleague, Chantille Tonn, 34, said food security was a big issue in the north end community long before COVID-19 arrived.

"The kids are excited to see us," Tonn said as they prepared to pack their vehicles in the midst of a snowstorm. "They realize the relationship doesn’t stop just because the doors to the school are closed right now.

"They’re looking for us to help them right now. Everyone is super thankful. They know we’re also putting ourselves at risk by being out in the community. I have a lot of grandmas waiting on the doorstep just wanting to chat. We’re also bringing homework packets from the teachers for some of the students.

"I feel very privileged these families let me into their lives and be their connection. Also, we really miss the kids."

The St. John’s High School food bank, which normally provides food hampers for about 100 families a week, is addressing rapidly increasing needs in the community during the global pandemic.  (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The St. John’s High School food bank, which normally provides food hampers for about 100 families a week, is addressing rapidly increasing needs in the community during the global pandemic. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Their delivery routine involves donning latex gloves, placing the hampers on the doorstep, knocking on the front door, then standing back six feet to respect social-distancing guidelines.

The hampers typically include canned vegetables, canned fruits, tinned luncheon meat, rice, pasta, spaghetti sauce, and one or two loaves of fresh bread.

"It’s just some staples," explained Tonn.

"It’s not a list that will last all week, but it gives them something. And every week it changes so they are not getting the same items every time," Rossi added.

On this snow-driven day, Rossi and Tonn -- decked out in their orange "Tiger Pride" T-shirts -- were under extra pressure because of the miserable weather and the fact their third outreach worker was self-isolating at home as a precaution.

"It’s going to take longer," Tonn said. "Typically, it would take us two days to bag and get them out, but now it will take a third day, especially with the weather conditions."

St. John’s principal Doug Taylor said what the school’s outreach workers are doing is the very definition of going the extra mile to help others in a time of unprecedented need.

"It’s not nine to five. They are doing it from their hearts. They’re doing what they can to support the families," Taylor said. "It’s about building trust with these families."

He stressed the school’s food bank program wouldn’t exist without the vital support of the Walter & Maria Schroeder Foundation. Walter founded the Dominion Bond Rating Service, then sold the business in 2014, allowing the Winnipeg-born couple to focus on philanthropy.

At St. John’s, the foundation has not only funded the food bank — buying groceries from Downtown Family Foods — but provides bursaries, scholarships and a state-of-the-art cafeteria that provides free breakfasts and nutritious lunches that cost a maximum of $2.50.

"For us, Walter (Schroeder) has been an absolute godsend," Taylor said. "He’s provided a sense of hope for our student body. Three years ago, we had 16 out of 100 students that went on to post-secondary institutions. Last year, in June, we had 62 students out of 100 that went on to post-secondary education."

The principal said delivering food aid to students trapped at home amid the pandemic is evidence the school is committed to supporting its community.

"We have to look after our community," he said. "We can’t just say we’re here from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We don’t just teach math and science. We have to do whatever we can to support the community.

"If families feel supported, part of the school, it will have an effect on the success of our students. It (food aid) is not a one-shot affair. We can’t just stop giving it …It’s hard to learn if you’re hungry."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

 

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
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