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Amanda Leo

September 21, 2018 Leave a comment

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

WHAT STREETFRONT CAN DO:

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Streetfront has always tried to offer the most immersive and experiential opportunities for our students. This summer we continued this tradition by running an incredible summer school program out of the Hooksum Outdoor School in Hesquiaht Harbour, BC.

We took 18 brilliant Streetfront and Britannia students to the traditional territory of the Kiniqwastakumulth Clan of the Hesquiaht First Nation. Under the guidance of Steve and Karen Charleson and leadership of Mariah Charleson, Alex Jules and Amanda Leo (more to come from her, stay tuned) our students experienced an incredible 8 day immersion in the natural, cultural and physical components of traditional life on BC’s west coast.

The camp was beyond belief. 18 disparate kids all coming together to build an amazing collective. Leaders were born and challenges accomplished. Spectacular day hikes, amazing backpacking trips, kayak journies along the fabled BC coastline, evening beach volleyball and ultimate frisbee matches and the greatest meals a hungry student could ever ask for.

Look at the photos and see what contentment, pride and self-confidence looks like.

It was an amazing thing to witness.

We are currently in the throes of our biggest fundraising cycle. We are fundraising to take over 40 students to Seattle to run the Seattle Marathon on Sunday November 25th (the largest single gathering of high school marathoners at one race). We are also 6 months away from the 3rd installment of our Street2Peak Project. In March 2019, we will be taking 15 students to New Zealand for an amazing physical and cultural exploration. We have only been able to accomplish what we’ve done due to the incredible support of our Streetfront community. Kids that come from our community would NEVER get the chance to explore the world and their own capabilities if people didn’t believe in their efforts. I hope you see in the faces of these amazing kids the hope and beauty that I get to see everyday.

If people would like to support our program (Streetfront; Street2Peak or our marathon program) – the easiest way is to donate online at www.shlf.ca (the charity where 100% of the money goes to us) or to register for our annual charity run at https://2mev.com/#!/events/strachan-hartley-legacy-run-2018.

Don’t forget that early run entrants get the coziest, comfiest, most wicked run shirt ever and a Ron Suzuki led PANCAKE BREAKFAST at the end of your run.

Eero Gaffney

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Eero Gaffney is a rare guy.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a student like him. Actually, I know I haven’t.

I first met Eero in grade 8. I coach Britannia’s cross country team and as I always do in the first week of September, I roam through the halls trying to entice anyone to join. The sign-up sheet taped to the skywalk doesn’t get a lot of traffic, what xcountry needs is face-to-face contact. I met Eero on one of those walks. I asked him if he wanted to join the xcountry team. He said yes and the next day became one of the best moments of my teaching career. I got to work with a kid like Eero Gaffney.

He showed up to every practice, on time, shoes tied, ears open and mind clear. He never balked about the rain or the distance, the workout or the method. He loved the challenge of distance running. He loved the psychology of endurance. He appreciated the pain and suffering that can only come through dedication and commitment. He accepted the losses and the setbacks. He endured not achieving what he wished for but reluctantly understood, unlike most youth, that hard work and determination will eventually win out. He trusted that we would get better, both as coach and athlete. The athlete got better, that’s for sure, and time will have to tell if the coach actually improved.

 

As I expected, Eero qualified for the first junior xcountry championship held in Cloverdale, BC. He literally swam through the course (the course had sections over his knees in rain water) and placed in the top third. As a team we were just delighted to be there. He was a bit disappointed but nothing a trip to Tim Horton’s couldn’t quickly erase.  But through that disappointment I could tell he was taking stock of his competition, listing the names and the schools of the Vancouver athletes who finished ahead of him. In typical Eero fashion, he was mapping out his next moves.

His grade 9 and 10 years were more of the same delightful student.  Though far junior to all the other athletes, he quickly became our de-facto captain, always modeling the resilience and strength needed to succeed in such a grueling sport.  Travelling with Eero to the provincial xcountry championships in each of those years made me appreciate the kid even more. He was always on time. Always so appreciative of the opportunity to participate and represent our school. Always spilling his guts to make us proud.

It was around this time that I asked Eero if he wanted to join the Streetfront marathon team. I had been working closely with so many Britannia athletes through xcountry, track and field, ultimate and basketball that I always hoped some of those non-alternative school kids would want to challenge themselves by committing to train for marathons. These very students had grown up with the Streetfront kids, went to the same elementary schools, probably were even friends at one time but as often happens, time moves on, so do kids and their lives.  I wanted to reunite these students and have both groups benefit from the interaction.

Eero ran his first half marathon in Vancouver in June 2015. He was 15 years old and didn’t really know what he getting into. He ran with his buddy Llewyn and giggled his way through a sub 2-hour time.  Next came Seattle in late November of that year and he opted for the full marathon. Again, not knowing what to expect, he went out cautiously and finished around 4 hours. This was the moment that Eero made a profound commitment to himself, our xcountry team and our marathon program. He asked what other kind of training he could do to supplement our xcountry program. He joined an elite group of high school runners out at UBC. Started running prescribed workouts on our off days. Started hitting the gym. He was determined to achieve something special.

His next marathon was Vancouver in June 2016. He went out with a different group of Streetfront marathoners and finished around 3:40. Then came Seattle the following November and he broke 3:20. For those who are not marathoners – shaving off 20 minutes in just 5 months is an amazing feat.  All of this led to the 2017 Vancouver Marathon, where on May 7th, Eero Gaffney became the 1st Streetfront marathoner to break 3 hours and in doing so qualified for the Boston Marathon – the most prestigious marathon in the world. He ran it in 2:59 – shaving off another 20 minutes in 5 months of training.

Since I started training kids to run marathons in 1999, I’ve always dreamed of seeing a kid of mine qualify for Boston. I knew someone would have it in them. Many of got close but none were fortunate enough to get to Massachusetts.  Eero became that kid. He proved to me that hard work, dedication and commitment aren’t just trite phrases I rattle off in the hopes that a kid will finish their routine 10 km training run – they are the foundation of something important.

We will fly off this upcoming April 13th, with Eero, his mom’s, a few other family members to Boston to watch a Britannia student and a Streetfront alum race with other champions. He will belong with this esteemed group. He has earned his right to be there.

Eero and all the other Streetfront marathoners would never have the opportunity to achieve such goals if it weren’t for the incredible support we’ve received from the SHLF over the past decade. They have single-handedly allowed us to become the world’s leading high school marathon team. They have allowed us to create the largest field study project in Canadian history (the Street2Peak Project), which Eero participated in. SHLF has changed how we view alternative school kids; their funding allows us to change the narrative of so many troubled youth, turning their tragedies into triumphs.

Eero Gaffney represents all that is fantastic in this world. He will make a profound impact on everything that he touches. SHLF allowed him that place in the sun.

Thanks to Eero Gaffney for making me so proud and to the SHLF for allowing us to do the work that we do.

Trevor Stokes

Global News Streetfront Story

Here is another media profile on our Streetfront marathon running program.

Global story

http://globalnews.ca/video/3514602/east-vancouver-teacher-turns-at-risk-youth-into-marathon-runners

Categories: Blog, Media, Running, Uncategorized

Thank you Helen

Today we said goodbye to the most awesome practicum student we’ve had. She has been supporting the staff and students alike for months. She’s a true professional coupled with a humongous dose of caring and fun. If we were able to have a fourth staff Helen would be it!

Helen is in the neighbourhood so we know she will not be gone completely but we will miss her greatly. Some employer should scoop her up now if you want a great team member.

Thanks for everything Helen!!

 

Categories: Blog Tags: ,

Julio Corpeno

February 22, 2017 1 comment

by: Trevor Stokes

This is a story about Julio Corpeno. It’s a story about drive, commitment and integrity. Julio and his family came to Canada from El Salvador. They didn’t have much but they were a proud family – they believed in each other, respected each other and believed people were innately good.

Julio Corpeno is as East-Van as it comes. In no way is that being used pergoratively. He is as proud of where he’s from as anyone could be. Born, raised and still roaming Commercial Drive – Julio is a fixture in our community, be it at the Trojan Boxing Club at the Santa Barbara market or at Café Calabria.

I met Julio (Jay from now on) at the end of his grade 9 year. He was in a traditional high school and things weren’t working out. He found the framework of high school uninspiring. He started skipping classes or being so unmotivated that he let the work slide by – he was in need of a change. I remember meeting his sister. She was a really strong advocate for her little brother. She didn’t want Jay to stray too far from the safe bounds of the family.

Taking Jay in was easy. He was a very polite but reserved kid. He wasn’t a behavioural problem like so many of the other Streetfront kids, rather he was withdrawing from life. He and the family agreed to give us a shot and come September, Jay was in our class.

Jay was part of the second class I ever taught at Streetfront. He was a classmate and best friends with Matthew Martins, the boy I wrote about who was murdered at 16. Streetfront back then was just starting to come into the program I hoped it to be. That year would have us complete our 1st full marathon (Mauricio Garcia – he came back last year to run his 5th marathon with us, 16 years after his first) and the Street2Peak Project would be more than decade away. I was trying to find my way as a teacher and Jay was doing the same as a student. I don’t think I had the biggest impact on Jay. I was close to him and we were tight but nothing really profound. Jay liked the physical stuff but was really into video games, art and mountain biking. I liked the mountain biking but didn’t have a lot to offer on the other two. Jay’s year at Streetfront was pretty uneventful – not that Jay was a forgettable kid, not a chance but rather, he kept things pretty close. Jay was struggling to find his passion but you could tell once he found the drive, he’d be off. He was a strong writer with an evocative mind. He finished his grade 10 year and decided to go to Spectrum, a senior alternative program based out of Vancouver Technical.

At Spectrum, he really enjoyed a creative writing class. They were studying a play and something clicked. He started to wonder what it would be like to be the actors performing these works. He started to envision what that dangerous and frightening world would be like. He started talking to his teacher and he suggested that if he really wanted to explore this, he should transfer to Templeton Secondary and enroll in their vaunted drama program, Theatre Temp.

I’d like to think I helped Jay reach his potential but I know that’s not the truth. Jay found what he needed at Templeton. Jay found wonderful, inspiring teachers who challenged him on a daily basis. He was placed in a space where creativity and vulnerability had to coexist. At Streetfront, he was shy, reserved, head a little bowed. Once he got into the theatre, everything changed. He became a man. He acted in 4 major plays and countless smaller, ensemble bits. He did stagecraft and direction. They traveled the country, performing and receiving adulation wherever they went. The kid who sat back, a little slumped in his chair at Streetfront was now clamouring for the spotlight. A metamorphosis had taken place. He was off.

Jay had such a successful grade 12 year that he was the recipient of a Templeton Foundation scholarship (this relationship will be fostered and tended to for years) – he would have any post-secondary program paid for in full. Now the Templeton folks hoped he would continue theatre but Jay had other plans. He always loved cars (again his East Van colours shining through) and wanted to be an auto mechanic, so he enrolled in Vancouver Community College’s (VCC) Auto Mechanic Service Technician Program.

The kid I knew at Streetfront was now long gone. He was hyper-focused. He dedicated his life to auto mechanics. He was their top student with a 92% average and won a scholarship. Jay wasn’t content with this. He always liked auto painting and refinishing and now wanted to enroll in VCC’s 1-year program. He went back to the Templeton Foundation and asked if they would sponsor his second post-secondary program. They agreed without hesitation. Jay excelled in this program as well, graduating with a 91% average. He quickly got a job and started doing what he thought he always wanted. But in such Jay fashion, that mind of his started to look at this career path a little more critically. Jay started to recognize how damaging the chemicals, fumes and other products were for his health. Within a year, Jay had the foresight to recognize that no job, how much he liked it, was worth his health.

Now while all this car stuff was going on, Jay had always had a part-time job working at a restaurant on Commercial Drive. He had been working in the kitchen there since grade 11, heading out to his shifts after his VCC schooling or after his auto-painting job. He started to really appreciate the creativity and skill needed to excel in the kitchen. He left the mom and pop restaurant for a larger and more sophisticated kitchen. While there, the ever-curious Jay, received Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. This book regaled in the carnal, salacious and insanely stressful world of fine dining. Jay loved it. He made a pledge to seek out the best chefs in the city and use their kitchen’s to develop his skills.

Soon he was working at the Fish House in Stanley Park under the tutelage of renowned Chef, Karen Barnaby. Next, he moved on to Chambar and worked under Chef, Niko Schuerman. Jay suffered mightily with the stress and anxiety of working in a demanding kitchen but loved the rush and the expertise needed to create memorable dishes. Jay then moved on to Ensemble, owned and operated by one of Canada’s premier Chefs, Dale MacKay. Again, he threw himself into the maelstrom of a throbbing kitchen.

Now just like with the cars, Jay came to a precipice in terms of careers. Part of him loved the insanity of the kitchen but part of him knew the toll it was it taking on his health. To add to this, at the height of his cooking journey, he never made more than $14 an hour. Like Jay had always done, he took the time to understand where he was and where he wanted to be. He’s always been prudent in those matters. As he tells it, he was at New Brighton Park, trying to divine some sort of inspiration into what was next, when a video game from his childhood popped into his head. Video games had always been a big part of his life and as he ruminated about his future, he wondered about designing video games. Could I do that?

jay

As Jay is wont to do, he went home and started researching. He literally spent day and night figuring out what skills he needed. He started religiously watching YouTube tutorials on 3d animation. He studied and built 3d models using an open source program called Blender. He started connecting with other like-minded artists, working collaboratively to increase his skills. While he was doing this, he was working as a plumber’s apprentice during the day, working in kitchen’s at night and then hammering back the espresso’s to keep honing his animation skills into the next morning. He sold his precious collection of mountain bikes (all 4 of them) and after 2 years had saved enough to pay for half of the tuition for the 3d animation program at the venerable Vancouver Film School. The other half of the tuition came from a familiar source. The Templeton Foundation, which had paid for his auto mechanic and then paint and auto finishing programs 10 years earlier, agreed to sponsor Jay’s latest vocational pursuit. Jay built up his 3d portfolio and submitted it for their inspection. They were very impressed and accepted Jay into the program.

The next year proved to be the most challenging, rewarding and transformational in Jay’s life. He lived at the VFS Gastown studio. He was putting in 90 to 100 hour weeks. He immersed himself in the program like no other student. The 3d animation program basically comes down to the term project – the demo reel. This is the make or break part of the course. You will be judged almost entirely on this one 30 to 60 second piece of animated art. Jay put everything he had into it. He drew from his first love of cars, from the esthetics of fine dining, from the showmanship of theatre. His demo reel would be Jay Corpeno. It would represent what he believed in. To say it’s beautiful is not enough. It is staggering. When I first watched it, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more proud of a former student. It was sublime.

Jay graduated as one of the top students in the class. His demo reel was used on the invitation to their graduation. His demo reel was on the VFS homepage as an example to prospective students of what they could accomplish. He now speaks on panels as a distinguished alum and recently came back to Streetfront to show the 2017 crop of Jay Corpeno’s what he had accomplished.

The kids couldn’t talk as he went through his presentation. Their eyes were stuck on the screen; searching for something they couldn’t find -imperfections or incongruences in the images. The images were so real they seemed imagined. When the lights came on and eventually Jay left, a student came up to me and asked if he could see Jay’s demo reel again. I played it for him and he walked right up to the screen with his eyes, mere inches from the screen. He shook his head and walked away. Recently, I’ve caught him at the computer looking at the demo reel weeks after Jay’s presentation. He told me it makes him happy to see a Streetfront kid make something so beautiful. He’s really glad Jay made it. So am I.

I’d like to introduce you to Julio Corpeno, an East Van original.

Please check out his demo reel. You need to turn up the volume. This is art. This is love. Remember, all of this is animated. All of it.

https://vimeo.com/188110949

You can also check out Julio’s website at:

http://juliocorpeno.com/

Categories: Alumni, Blog Tags: , , , ,

Matthew Martin

February 7, 2017 Leave a comment

by: Trevor Stokes

Introducing Matthew Martins

Matt would be 28 now. He’d be at home on a Sunday, with his kids. Playing PS4 in the basement. They’d be within an arm’s reach. He’d be behind them on the couch with the two boys on the floor in front of him. They’d be playing Mario Kart. His hand would be tracing circles on their backs, tugging through their Sunday hair, gripping their shoulders as the game progressed. His turn would come up and he’d decline, giving the younger one a chance to avenge his early exit. Matt’s smiling like only he could. Life is good. It’s as it should be or should’ve been.

I met Matt in the September of his grade 9 year. He had come to Streetfront after attending the John Oliver Bridge Program. I used to go with Bill McMillan, the original counselor at Streetfront, to this program and do a slideshow, showing the prospective students what we could offer. Matt was in the audience that May. He liked what he saw, asked a lot of questions (a lot) and the family decided to give us a shot.

He came into a wonderful class, filled with personalities, characters and challenges. I still keep in contact with many of those kids (funny how they are still kids, though they’re 29 or 30 years old) and am so happy that many of them are still close friends. Matt assumed a spot right beside my teaching desk. It’s interesting how certain kids end up in that spot – sometimes it’s intentional (behaviour management; blind as a bat and no glasses; small enough so others can see the board over them; socially awkward kid who needs to be away from alpha personalities), but often it’s entirely selfish on my part – I really like the kid and want to be entertained. If you’ve done this job for as long as I have, you need to take your gifts when you can get them and putting Matt Martins within arm’s reach, was a gift, let me tell you.

That levity saved me. It helped me see what was important with these kids. It provided the clarity my teaching was lacking. I learned from Matt that if I could make the kids laugh and giggle every class, that each class was worthwhile, it had something tangible. We wouldn’t ignore the curriculum but we would enhance the experience. If you ask my students what I do well in class, I hope they’d say that I make learning fun. I hope they remember the smiles and laughs we had. If they do I did my job well, and I guess Matt did his, too.

He was directly to my teaching right. I can see his constantly moving body, arching and swaying as he got through my class. Never one to sit idle, he was purematt-martins2 liquid, gravitating towards the most comfortable position. As constant as his motion, one thing that moved even more was his mouth. He always had a comment. Always had a question. Always had a wisecrack. Always had something for me. He filled the gaps and silences, like no kid I ever taught. What was different with Matt though, was the nature of his comments. It was pure jackass. Always kidding, always fooling. Never mean. Never going after a weak target. Sure it got too much at times, but I couldn’t stop going back to him. We became an unwitting tag-team. If the class needed a boost or some sort of misdirection, I’d go to Matt. I’d look at him and he’d do the work. He would know what we needed and like Karl Malone, he always delivered. Once I recognized how much fun we could have in class, my decision to stay was made.

I can see Matt now, running around playing indoor soccer, trying desperately to keep his oversized jeans up. One hand running freely, the other tugging at the waist of those ill-fitting jeans. He was a good soccer player – feisty and unpredictable. I can still hear his, “Trevvvvvvvvvvvvvv. Why you gotta be that way????” when I’d let a goal slip by me. He’d be running back towards the centre of the court, looking back over his shoulder with a big smile on his face.

His grade 9 and 10 years were filled with growing friendships and good times. Jay Corpeno, Oscar Clara, Jacob Montgomery and Matt had a special bond. Each of these boys was a little bit different than the traditional Streetfront kid that normally sat before me. These boys had a softer side to them. Jay loved art and mountain biking (not a normal combo in this most East Van of alternative schools). Oscar was really tight with his family and his cultural roots. Jacob was this anti-establishment dude who questioned most anything but in a weird neo-hippie kind of way. Then there was Matt, who had a little bit of each in him. He had the ability to fit into any group and just be accepted. Always popular with the ladies, Matt knew how to put on the Martins charm.

Matt finished up his grade 10 year and moved onto Spectrum, a senior alternative program based out of Vancouver Technical. He kept in touch with his Streetfront friends but started branching out and meeting other kids. Matt came back to visit in the spring of 2005. He was filled with the same excitement and energy. He told me about his classes and the friends he had made, about the girls he had in his sights and about the rhymes he was trying to get out of his head. He was really happy. He was making it.

I never saw Matt again. He was murdered that summer, trying to get with his buddies for Canada Day celebrations. He died over a chain he was wearing. He died a brutal death over a chain. That makes no sense. It never will.

I’ve been writing these pieces on former Streetfront students and what they’ve done since they left us. It’s been really nice going through the collective memories and showing others how amazing these kids are. Matt never had a chance to show what kind of man he was going to become; what kind of partner he was going to be; what kind of employee he was going to be; what kind of Dad he was going to be. He was gone at 16. He deserved better. Everyone deserves better.

It’s a Friday and Matt has put the boys down for the night. He checks his texts and sees that Jay’s already at the Pub. He’s got a table with Oscar. Matt kisses his wife and as he leaves he puts his head back inside the door and flashes that Matt Martins smile. It’s a smile that reassures everything. It’s a smile that tells everyone, life is good. We’ll make it. She walks back towards the TV loving the man and looking forward to what will come.

I’d like to introduce everyone to Matthew Martins, an outstanding young man you most likely never got to meet but would’ve never forgot if you did. Take care, Matt.

matt-martins

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Sandie Martins-Toner will never get her son back. She knows that. She has replaced the anger and sadness that latch onto such a tragedy with a commitment to bringing hope and positivity to this world. Matthew would be 29 this September 20th and in his honor she will go out into the community and find someone who needs help. This will be unsolicited, like last year when she walked into a grocery store, went down the aisles looking for whom she thought needed a break, found a young mother and her daughter and then surprised them at the checkout by paying for all their groceries. Her and her husband, David called this Matthew’s Random Act of Kindness. Sandie has a fundraiser going on right now and all the profits will go to this year’s Random Act of Kindness. It’s a fitting tribute to a wonderful young man.