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Strathcona centre nourishes the DTES: From breakfast to backpacks to food banks, programs feed every need
There are two institutions to be found at 601 Keefer Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — the Strathcona Community Centre and Ron Suzuki.
The centre is more sanctuary than fitness club and Suzuki, its recreation director, is a local legend despite his reticence to take any credit for attempting to feed a hungry community.
“I know some of my peers wonder why we are so involved in food but really this goes right back to the origins of community centres which grew out of community kitchens established in the Depression when people came together to share what food they had.
“It’s really all we are doing here,” says Suzuki.
Hundreds of children and adults are fed each week in the centre, which is attached to Strathcona Elementary. At times it operates as a community kitchen, a food bank, and a before and after school haven. It’s the centre of conscience in this often troubled neighbourhood.
And much of it has to do with keeping people fed.
The doors open at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and children will be arriving up to the time classes start at nine. A number come in with parents.
“Many parents work long hours. They tell me that this is often the only time they get to sit down with their children during the day. Also this time gives families the opportunity to get to know one another.
“One time we had mostly Asian families now there is a large number of First Nations people living here. This breakfast helps bind our community together.”
The early arrivals go to the gym where they play volleyball or basketball supervised by teachers or by retired teacher Tom King.
“It gets me up in the morning,” says King who has volunteered there for 10 years.
“We couldn’t do it without the teachers,” says Suzuki. “They come in early and come over and look after the kids.”
Lauren Brown is the centre’s food security coordinator responsible for the wide range of food programs which makes Strathcona so unique.
Breakfast could be a hard boiled egg, fruit and cucumber, toast, milk and daily specials such as a breakfast wrap, granola and yogurt, English muffins, cream cheese or other specials.
At recess it’s fruit and yogurt and after school snacks are again fresh fruit and vegetables and such fare as soup or pasta, baked potatoes with cheese, sandwich wraps, kale muffins or homemade sushi
“Then we have our food market and backpack program to give food support to families over the weekend,” says Brown.
This requires the efforts of more than a dozen volunteers who receive donated food from donors such as Fresh Direct Produce, Sunrise Market, Lotus Light Charity and the Vancouver Food Bank.
On Fridays there is a food market where food is available for families struggling with poverty to come and choose what they need to see them through the weekend..
“We will pack up food for parents who can’t come in and send it home with the children. I’d say we have 150 families who need help. Sixty to 80 will come to the market, for the rest we send food home,” says Brown.
Allan Williams has two young daughters at the school, and can often be found, along with his son AJ and his wife Jolene, volunteering at the centre.
A powwow singer and drummer, Williams recently performed at the Strathcona’s Food Sustainability Fair and is an example of how residents give back, said Suzuki.
“His family make a very positive contribution to what we do,” he says. “they are wonderful people.”
Williams is on a disability pension and unable to work. The family lives in nearby social housing.
“I’m not saying we don’t have food for breakfast but the last week or so before welfare day can be a bit of a struggle,” said Williams.
“If it weren’t for this place and the Friday backpack program we probably wouldn’t make it by.”
Strathcona Community Centre and school is supported by The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School program.
This year the centre is seeking $15,000 for after school care for children whose parents are unable to pay for it.
“We have about 50 children from working poor families who are struggling to pay rent and get food on the table,” says Suzuki.
“Without reliable after school care the ability of these parents to keep their jobs is in danger,” he says.