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?
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.
You can also check out Julio’s website at:
October 3, 2016
Being a kid is tough. It always has been. Sierra Sidwell, a grade 10 student at the Streetfront Alternative Program knows all about that.
Sierra’s sitting behind the Streetfront portable, on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. The garden is starting to fade into its fall colours. The sunflowers are starting to droop and the tomato plants are drying up. She came to Streetfront half way through last school year. She was kicked out of her last school for skipping school and past suspensions. She had little interest in applying herself. She felt school for her was a lost cause, “I started waking up at 9, 10 maybe even noon. I didn’t care that I was skipping those classes. I wasn’t getting out of them anyways. I was so unhappy and unmotivated. It was better for me not to be at school, even though I knew that wasn’t a good decision for my future.”
Sierra speaks about her dissatisfaction with that time in her life with such clarity and thoughtfulness. She tells a story of a young woman whose identity was slowly eroding from her. “I had to hide who I really was. The person I am wasn’t welcomed in my previous school. If I were to survive, I would have had to totally hide my personality. Eventually, I started hiding my personality even from myself. That’s when I knew I was getting into something really deep and I needed to make a big change,” Sierra explains as the sun starts to tilt towards the west.
Moving schools is a traumatic event in a teenager’s life. Life is so precious when you are a teenager. Every move seems magnified beyond belief. Things are so intense and personal. Sierra’s impending move to Streetfront was met with extreme trepidation. Like so many other students, Sierra thought going to an alternative program was a definite step down, “I thought an alternative program was either for really bad kids or kids who weren’t smart enough for regular high school. If I went to Streetfront, what were my friends going to think?”
Sierra attended Strathcona Elementary and a few Strath kids were attending Streetfront, so that first day was a bit softer than she expected. “I was totally nervous, but I thought that if I could just find those kids I already knew, maybe I’d fit in better,” Sierra comments. Things turned out better than she ever expected, “I never thought I’d be accepted so quickly. Literally, after the first couple of hours I felt like I could relax and actually be the person I am.” Her eyes are darting all over the place as she tells me more, “I didn’t have to plan on how I’d play my entire day out. Before, I had to think about every move and calculate this interaction and how I was going to talk to this person. At Streetfront, I knew I’d be accepted and appreciated for who I was.”
Sierra never expected the runs to become such an integral part of her life. “I can honestly say I never believed I would love running so much. At my old school I don’t think I did a single lap of our school run without stopping,” Sierra recalls. “I heard the other kids say how easy running gets and how much they get out of it, but I kind of thought that was bull. But once I finished my first 10 km (on her 1st run), something was different. It was hard but I was so proud of myself. I ran basically 10’s ever since and I love how the runs make me feel. I’m totally zenned out when I run, it’s just myself and my thoughts.”
Sierra credits the running program with giving her goals and aspirations that were never present in her life before. “The Vancouver Half-Marathon was my initial goal. I trained really hard but I was so nervous before the race. I got to the start line and started believing that I was in over my head. What got me through was that they kept telling me I was tough enough to do it and I trusted them,” reminisces Sierra. “Once I was on the course, I’ve never felt more in control. At 2 km I knew I was going to finish. In some ways it was the easiest run I’ve ever had,” beams Sierra.
Sierra credits the drive and commitment she’s learned at Streetfront with changing other parts of her life, “I really started doing well in class. I think my final report card was almost all high B’s with some A’s. I also went out and got a job at Tacofino. I’ve been working there for 5 months now. I also attended every single Street2Peak training hike this summer. Sometimes I had to just stay awake all night just to make sure I never missed the hike. I can’t believe I go to a school where if I do my part and work really hard, I get to go to Patagonia. Who get’s to do that? If I was at my old school, I might’ve got to Science World,” laughs Sierra.
Sierra is adamant that she will follow Jesse Costucci-Phillips lead and become only the second Streetfront female student to run a full marathon. “There’s no way I’m not going to run the full in Seattle. It’s a done deal. I am more focused on that goal than anything I’ve ever done,” admits Sierra with a big, confident smile.
As you can tell, Sierra is an impressive kid. I believe that she will accomplish all of her goals. As her story unfolds, I sit back and think, “As glad as she is that she found Streetfront, I’m pretty sure Streetfront is probably even more grateful she and others like her, came to their school.”
September 16, 2016
Abdi Ahmed is an easy kid to like. You see his smile before you see anything else. Always happy and always inviting you into his life, Abdi is an amazing and resilient young man.
Abdi was born in war-torn Ethiopia. His family was able to flee the conflict and arrive in Canada in 2011. First arriving in a transition house for refugees and then moving out to Surrey. The family then relocated to Strathcona’s Raymur Projects, where so many Britannia families have started to build a bright and prosperous future for their families.
Abdi came to Streetfront at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. Abdi had struggled both academically and behaviourally in grade 8 and 9 at Britannia and was hoping to find a different school setting and a new start. He found that at Streetfront. As he said while I was talking to him over lunch on a Friday afternoon, “Streetfront offered me everything I wanted in a school. Trevor teaches in a different way. He makes it so easy to learn. The staff helps you with personal stuff. They don’t let you get away with anything. I was failing most of my classes. By the end of the school year I was getting B’s and a few A’s.”
Abdi quickly assumed a leadership role at Streetfront. He took this role very seriously, always modeling the behavior the younger students needed to see. Within a week, he became the defacto captain of Streetfront’s internationally recognized marathon team. Throughout the school year, regardless of the weather or the ailments that befall a long-distance runner, Abdi hammered the pavement, never wavering in his commitment. “I didn’t like the runs at the start but I wanted to prove that I could run 10 km every time. After a few weeks, I started to like the runs. Then I started to need the runs. If we ever missed a run, I’d ask Trevor if I could run on my own. I think I ran over 700 kms last year. I’m really proud of that.” Pretty amazing for a 16 year old kid whose only been in Canada for 5 years.
Abdi ran the Seattle and Vancouver Marathons last school year, plus the Scotiabank Half-Marathon in June 2016. The Seattle Marathon was special for Abdi because it took an amazing effort by Barry Skillin and Gord Howey to navigate the visas and identification requirements to get Abdi into the United States. It took over 4 hours to make it happen, but for a kid like Abdi, it was obviously worth it.
After Abdi’s great year at Streetfront, he felt confident enough to return to Britannia for grade 11. Trevor Stokes knew it was the right decision, “I think it was exactly what Abdi needed. After his year with Streetfront, his confidence was booming and he started to believe he had the skills to make it in the main school. Going back and showing everyone how much he’d grown, was the logical next step.”
Abdi plans on continuing to run with Streetfront and is training diligently to land a spot on their Street2Peak Patagonia Team, which will be heading to Chile in March 2017. “I never thought you could go to a school and have so many opportunities. Going to Chile, who would ever think a kid from here could go and do that? I think that’s pretty awesome.” Asking the staff at Streetfront about Abdi, its quick to find out that they think he’s pretty awesome as well.
By Eleanor Boyle, contributing writer
Cody Price comes across as quiet and a little shy, so you wouldn’t know to meet him that he competes in marathons and plays a leadership role in the running program at his school. But Cody is one of the impressive students at Streetfront, the alternative Vancouver high school program that supplements academic learning with demanding athletic pursuits.
Cody agreed to be interviewed for Meet the Runner, and chatted with me over sushi on Commercial Drive recently. It was almost a month before the start of the school year, but Cody was already in preparation and running regularly on his own. “I love track and love running,” Cody said. From a young age and through MacDonald elementary school in Grandview Woodland, Cody played a lot of sports including soccer, basketball and track. So he was identified as a good candidate for Streetfront, and started there two years ago.
The long-distance races started when Cody was just in Grade Eight, and joined the Streetfront group to travel south of the border for the annual Seattle Full and Half Marathon. It was his first time outside Canada, and there he was at the start-line surrounded by thousands of people all challenging themselves just like he was. “It was an amazing experience,” he said. “It was a blessing for me.”
Since then he has completed three full marathons and two halfs. He credits Streetfront and its staff who devote themselves to giving academic, athletic and personal guidance to young people having trouble in regular school. Referring to head teacher Trevor Stokes, along with Gord Howey and Barry Skillin, he calls them “outstanding.” They’ve “gotten my through a lot.” He’s now better able to cope with personal situations, and has become more social, enjoying meeting new people and hearing their stories. “The care that I get from that school is amazing.”
Running has helped him develop discipline. “’Cause you’re running and wanting to stop,” says Cody, “but Trevor’s there behind you. He’ll give you breaks, but will talk you through it. It’s an awesome experience.”
Knowing that some Streetfront students had never run before, and that marathons are long and difficult, I asked Cody whether they’re allowed to slow down and walk during races. “Yes, you can walk,” said Cody. “If you feel like you need to walk, there’s a reason, and that’s okay. All Trevor says is: Do not stop.” Once you’ve got forward momentum, do not slow down so much that you actually come to a standstill. Starting again will be too hard.
At Streetfront, Cody has also been developing leadership skills. It started when he noticed that Trevor was overly busy trying to assist runners during races and training. So Cody offered to help. Now, especially with new students, Cody keeps an eye on them. “I’m one of Trevor’s runners who, on a marathon or a regular run, will take a person and say, ‘Trevor, you don’t need to worry about him. I’ll make sure these guys are running with me. I’ll make sure they’re OK.’ I’ll be Trevor’s helper. So he can stay in the back with other people.”
Trevor emphasized this to me, in an email, saying: “Cody is my right hand man in terms of the running program. He understands the psychology of what a new runner is going through. He’s been there hundreds of times and knows exactly what that kid needs to hear or sometimes, more importantly, what they don’t want to hear. His willingness to sacrifice his own training for the benefit of other less experienced runners has always impressed me.”
Cody is also hiking in preparation for Streetfront’s next big mountain ascent — part of a bold and innovative program called Street2Peak — which will take them to Patagonia in South America next spring.
Outside school Cody likes to listen to music, especially to artists and songs with poetic lyrics. He lives with his mother, and says he has frequent contact with his father, as well as also having a mentor through Big Brothers. Cody likes to be an independent thinker, for example where social media is concerned. Though he made arrangements via text to meet me, he doesn’t like to spend too much time in the digital world. “I like personal connections,” he told me. “Not so much social media. I don’t have instagram or snapchat. I can’t just sit there, on a device that’s doing everything for me. I want to do stuff on my own.”
Cody is a key part of the team at Streetfront. When he has extra time or is bored during lunch break, he’ll suggest to a few friends that they go for another run. As Trevor says: “Cody quite often is my student spokesperson. Whether I ask or not, Cody always makes himself available to help. His generous and genuine appreciation for the running program and Streetfront always fills me with pride. Cody has faced so many obstacles in his life but doesn’t let those get him down. Instead, he shows up on time ready to do the work that is needed. He needs us and we need kids like him. That combination of dedication and commitment is what makes Cody such a wonderful kid.”