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Amanda Leo

Here’s another profile of a fantastic Streetfront kid.

Introducing Amanda Leo

Streetfront kids know heartbreak. They’ve seen it. Lived it. They come to accept it as normal. Disappointment and loss are as common a thread in their lives as anything. For my own kids, they’re disappointed and sad if we don’t get sushi for supper on a Friday. They bemoan the fact that our hotel might not have a big enough swimming pool. Typical complaints from affluent kids but pretty superficial. Nobody died. Nobody went away never to come back. They didn’t have to move because a fire destroyed everything they had. They didn’t have to leave in the middle of the night to get to a shelter for abused women. Somebody didn’t have their leg amputated due to complications from diabetes. Streetfront kids have. They’ve experienced it. They’ve lived it.

Amanda Leo entered my life when she was in grade 8. I met her as a lovely, precocious kid sitting in Britannia’s office with a cast on her arm and glasses on her face. I was drawn to start a conversation and she reciprocated my interest. Soon I found out the means of the injury and how bummed she was because it was going to interfere with hockey, baseball and basketball. I knew this girl and I were going to become friends.

As the conversation progressed she told me about herself and how things were going. She was a Brit Elementary kid and had two younger brothers and a baby sister. I left that initial meeting knowing we were going to cross paths.

Amanda and I would talk every time I saw her on the hallways. She always had so much bounce to her – quick to tell me anything new – her eyes always looking for the good in the world. I knew she was struggling with her academics. Lots of issues at home took its toll. Amanda, being the oldest sibling, always took on a maternal role to her two brothers and young sister. Whether she wanted the responsibility or not, she knew she had to do her part to help keep her family together. Amanda also, like so many Streetfront kids, lost her Dad in 2006. He was everything to her and the pain she felt then has never left her.

A few months later, Amanda came up and said she was thinking about attending Streetfront. I was so excited. Regardless of whether there was room – she was joining our school. She came down and met Barry and Gord. She impressed them just as she had me.

A week later Amanda Leo joined Streetfront and my life has been better ever since.

Amanda loved sports. Ok, let me change that – she LOVED sports. Everything about it, she liked. Physically she had all the tools. Great coordination, amazing hands and that indomitable spirit that separates good athletes from great ones. Streetfront was the perfect place for her. Within days, she assumed a leadership role in our class. She instantly showed her prowess in our PE program. I’ve been running sports tournaments for all the alternative schools in Vancouver for decades. Kids that are in alternative programs instantly know that they are on a different path than kids that go to “main” schools as we call them. Initially they feel like they had to accept a demotion due to the circumstances that brought them to us. Their pride takes a shot and their self-esteem has definitely been challenged. My job is to change that and have them understand that joining an alternative school may have been the most fortunate event to happen in their lives. That demotion in fact was a promotion to something extraordinary.

Participating in tournaments is a part of that. When a tournament is held a 100 kids come together – every kid having a story attached to them – but when the whistle blows, they are just athletes, kids with a collective purpose. Their initial reticence is replaced by a fierce commitment to their team. Kid’s who would never move a muscle in a regular main school PE class are barking at me to get them in the game because they can’t stand sitting on the sidelines. We get so much buy in from the kids that for every tournament we have to split our 22 students into 2 teams (automatically reducing our talent pool by 50%). Most programs struggle to get one team. We have two teams with subs chomping at the bit to get into the game. To make things even more difficult, we are a junior alternative program, so we have almost equal numbers of grade 8, 9 and 10 kids (this year for example we have 6 grade 8’s; 9 grade 9’s and 7 grade 10’s but we compete in senior tournaments where the average age of our competitors is 17 or 18 years old. We don’t care. We want to play and the kids commit themselves so fully to the cause, we usually come out on top. Last year for example we won the softball, volleyball and indoor soccer tournaments. The volleyball championship was ridiculous – I mistakenly put 5 grade 8’s on a team of 10 players – it didn’t matter, they won despite being at times 5 years younger than the kids on the other side of the net. For those kids, that might have been the only tournament they have ever won, period. We will memorialize every win with a photo that will hang on our wall. Kids will come into the office 10 years after they graduated (like today) and I will always find their eyes gravitating towards their photo, hoping that I might tune in and regale with them on their victory. Their smile and pride as evident today as it was then.

Amanda Leo couldn’t wait for these tournaments. She arrived at Streetfront a few weeks into September. The first tournament of the year is always softball held at Trout Lake in early October. We practice a number of times prior to the tournament and this year the prospects were looking pretty similar – horrible skills, no knowledge of the rules of softball and a big dose of apprehension lurking over all the kids. Amanda showed up and things definitely improved. Within 2 minutes, she was better than the whole team combined. She didn’t play a position in the infield, she played the whole infield (I’m not joking) and she played most of the outfield. She batted cleanup and also pinch ran if we had any injuries. We went into that tournament with only 5 grade 10’s – I thought we were going to get clobbered but Amanda was the difference. She scooped up every grounder and threw a rocket to first every time. She caught every pop fly. She hit home run after home run, driving in almost all of our runs. Her play became infectious. Soon other kids were raising their game to levels we hadn’t seen before.

In our softball tournaments there aren’t 3 outs per inning, instead we allow 10 batters to bat each inning and tally up the runs scored. We found ourselves in the championship game. It came down to the final batter and we were up by 2 runs. They had a runner on 1st and 3rd. We had to stop the hitter from scoring. We decided to put Amanda in the outfield. Their best hitter smashed a ball to deep centre, Amanda could’ve easily made a play on it but she didn’t. Instead she allowed Jericho Cowell (a very inexperienced player) the chance to make the catch. I was yelling, “Get the ball, Amanda, make the catch!!!” She stopped her run and moved out of the way to watch Jericho, as unlikely as it seemed to be, make the game saving catch and winning us the tournament. Amanda was the MVP of the tournament – the 1st female I ever remember winning that award but I barely remember that. What I’ve never forgot, is her allowing her teammate the chance to be the hero of the game. That’s a teammate. That’s a champ.

Amanda showed the same tenacity and commitment to long distance running. Back then; it was rare for our female students to participate fully in our running program. We’d get most of them to commit to the training runs, but very few were willing to push towards the longer distances. Amanda and Toni Gladstone (who I’ve profiled previously) were different than the others. They decided to commit and fight through the pain. They started to run the Deep Cove runs (20 km) and consistently ran the 10 km training runs. They knew they were as talented as the boys and were willing, on a daily basis, to prove it. By early May they were ready and when they crossed the finish line down by Plaza of Nations, they were the first Streetfront girls to run a half marathon. They changed everything. Girls now knew it was possible to run these distances. They knew they deserved as much attention and accolades as the boys did. I look at last year’s numbers and we had 26 half marathons and 12 full marathons run by the female members of our marathon program. Amanda Leo helped create that narrative of possibility and hope.

Amanda left our program after her grade 10 year and went to a senior alternative program called Outreach. She had made such strides in her life. She became a member of our vaunted Britannia Senior Girl’s Basketball team. She was the heart of the girl’s soccer team playing goalie. She was a provincial level bowler. She became a dedicated student, understanding that sports alone weren’t going to bring her the future she wanted.

By her grade 12 year, it all came together. Her peers and teachers selected her as the Valedictorian at Vancouver’s Aboriginal Graduation. She delivered an amazing speech that touched upon the hardship she faced growing up and the dreams she had for her and her fellow graduates. I remember going up to her after her speech and thinking how proud I was to have been her teacher.

 

 

Amanda left high school ready to face new challenges. She entered into the workforce immediately and quickly impressed her bosses. She found work doing kitchen installations and millwork with a high-end shop called MJ Installations (the big name downtown high-rises, that’s where she practices her trade). She’s been there for 8 years leading her crew, as dependable and talented as she was when I taught her. Being a female in such a male-dominated industry has its challenges but as always, she proved she was as talented as anyone and never let someone tell her she couldn’t do something.

She still plays softball on all the top teams (Outlawz, Slow Pokes and Those Pitches), bowls at Grandview Lanes and works every summer at an amazing summer camp called Hooksum, which I’ve written about recently. I speak to her regularly and am so blessed to have her as a friend. I see her Facebook posts and they are usually filled with photos of her mom’s baking or her Dad’s memory. The pain she feels is real and it won’t go away but she knows she’s done well. She knows she’s in charge and she’ll see her way through the tangles that will undoubtedly come up. We are all proud of her and know that she represents everything we’ve ever believed in: toughness, perseverance and character. She’s as good as we have.

I’d like to introduce you to Amanda Leo, a Streetfront legend.

Categories: Alumni, Blog, Marathon
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