Willy DuGray entered Streetfront about as quietly as someone could. Dressed entirely in black, with his hoodie all the way up. His face was a shadow. He was hunched over and didn’t utter a sound when I first met him. I knew his family, having taught his cousin 3 years earlier. His mom was desperate to find something that would awaken her son. He was becoming a shadow himself – an outline of her former son. He was 13 years old.
It was a strange application process, since Willy contributed absolutely nothing to the interview. His lack of words, body language (literally melting into the table to avoid any human interaction) and palpable anxiety told us this was one troubled youth. His mom talked of how he used to be a precocious and garrulous youngster. How he used to be filled with energy and vitality. A kid who loved to play basketball. We had no reason to doubt her but what we saw in front of us, couldn’t have been more to the contrary.
To make things stranger, were the physical demands Streetfront asks of their student’s. We start everyday with an intense, high cardio PE class; we run three 5-10 km runs per week; we go on 30+ outdoor exclusions and 3 camping trips per school year; most of our breaks are out on the field throwing the Frisbee. How was this kid going to make it? Couldn’t have seemed like a worse fit.
Willy came to Streetfront the next day and went straight to his assigned desk and put his head down. He stayed there till we told him we had PE. Reluctantly, he got up and followed us to the gym. Promptly sat down and put his head down between his knees. He stayed that way for the entire hour. Once that was done, he returned to class and buried himself inside his hoodie with his head on the desk. He didn’t utter a word or sound. He ignored everything. We tried to introduce him to his new classmates but that was less than successful. This continued for 2 MONTHS!!!!!!!
This was not easy for me. I’m a pretty high-energy teacher, some might say, hyper. I feed off the energy of the kids. Willy was killing me. He didn’t fall for my ploys. He ignored my tangents. He was immune to any charms I thought I possessed. I was getting nervous. What was I going to do with this kid?
One day I was teaching chemistry. I was walking around the classroom talking about protons and their matching electrons. At certain times pairs of electrons are shared, these are called covalent bonds. I had just started teaching this subject and posed a question that I assumed most wouldn’t know but would segue into the next lesson. As I walked back to my desk, I passed Willy. He was in the same exact position, he always was except beside his head, written in large letters was COVALENT BOND. He hadn’t been asleep. He was actually listening. There was life!!!!
Now as I taught, I recognized the nascent intelligence inside of Willy. He started to put a few answers down on his lesson reviews. He would complete most of the class notes. He still wouldn’t talk or take his head out of his hoodie, but we were making progress. PE and the runs were still an issue. We would ask him to play and reluctantly, he started to oblige. Soccer seemed to interest him the most. We played a lot of soccer. He liked defense, so he was always on my team and we were D partners. He wasn’t really playing, more like getting in the way, but we were ok with that.
He would walk the runs to start. That was a violation of Streetfront rules but we had to bend a bit. After a month or so, the walk turned into a shuffle, which morphed to a lope and finally a run was before us. He was still draped in black, with jeans, hoodie and skin that hadn’t seen the sun for years but he was doing it.
By the end of his grade 8 year, Willy began to speak. He started to mumble answers in our academic classes. He really liked science and it became evident he knew what he was now starting to talk about. Whenever I asked the class for an answer, Willy would pause, never wanting to speak over anyone, and then when nobody else had the answer, give me the correct answer. Eventually, I had to implement the Willy Rule – Willy could only answer the questions I posed to him. If I didn’t, Willy would answer every question. I’m not lying. Every question. Willy’s grades started to rise and as we’ve seen with so many of our students, he started to apply himself to all aspects of our program (except writing essays – that’s another story but you’ll be happy to know that he has conquered that too. See the end). Soon he was enthusiastic about our PE program, he was jumping off cliffs in his snowshoes, and he was making friends. His mom was getting her boy back.
He slowly broke through as a runner, as well. He threw up a lot in those first few 10’s but he persevered. The transformation was becoming ridiculous. By the end of his grade 10 year, if the weather was apt, he would run without his shirt on, hopping over any obstacle in his path. He eventually got up the courage to run his first half marathon. Then came his second and then his first full. Willy has went on to run 11 half marathons and 4 fulls, most of these with zero training. Like so many of our former students, they have mastered the mental aspect of long distance running. Willy will be running the in the Vancouver Marathon this May alongside all the other kids, like the fixture he’s become.
I have two memories that still make me smile about Willy. The first was when I received a letter from his brother, saying how proud he was of Willy and Streetfront’s role in that success. He, like Willy, had faced incredible adversity in his life.
As a young man Willy watched as his family fell apart. He calls his own life as ghetto as they come. His sister nearly died when she fell from the 3rd floor, headfirst into the alley outside of Willy’s apartment. Willy was 6. His brother, a career criminal from the age of 8 (ask Willy), eventually committed a major crime as a 14 year old and was sent to a juvenile detention centre until he turned 19 and then was sent to Kent Maximum Security Prison. Willy was 7.
Willy didn’t talk much about his family but I learned a few things about his brother. While in prison, he honed his art skills becoming a renowned prison tattoo artist. He got his high school diploma. He even was accepted into a stained glass program, a rare thing for certain level inmates. In his letter, he mentioned that he had something for the program and he wanted Willy to give it to me. I had no idea what this gift was but I returned a letter to him, saying I’d be honoured to receive such a gift. A few weeks later Willy walked in with the greatest gift I’ve ever received – a wonderfully crafted stained glass window with the word STREETFRONT written across it. I got Barry and Gord to get the sawzall out and within a few hours, they had cut a perfect rectangle above the door to our office and inserted the stained glass window. The most beautiful transom you have ever seen is still there, just waiting for someone to ask me where it came from.
The second memory to some wouldn’t warrant much attention but to me it meant the world. I love books, maybe too much if you ask Pauline but I think it’s not the worst vice to have. I am always yapping to my students about books and movies – art, basically, hoping that one-day, they would find in books, what I found; a constant friend and companion that always teach you something.
Willy came back to Streetfront the fall of his grade 11 year to visit. He quickly started telling me something that I had waited years to hear. He told me he had read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic commentary on what might be in store in a McCarthy dominated USA. He was so excited to talk about the censorship issues and the larger political themes. I added a bit but basically just let him roll. I was so happy for Willy. He found it. He found the beauty in learning. He wanted to engage with those pages, not because he had to but because he wanted to. He wanted to know more.
Willy went on to become an integral part of the Streetfront family. He graduated high school at the top of his class; became a senior mentor with the Yo’ Bro Youth Initiative (an amazing non-profit that works to give kids a chance to reconnect with everything positive in life); became a manager at a recycling depot and was getting an A+ in his essay writing course (I told you, he’d conquer that). He continued his connection to Streetfront, showing up in the mornings for our PE classes and always coming back when I needed him to.
Willy will be travelling to Taiwan this summer with his girlfriend. When he gets back, he’ll start classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Who knows, maybe you’ll be sitting beside him in class? He’ll be easy to find. He’ll be sitting up taller than anyone else in that classroom.
I’d like to introduce you to Willy Valour DuGray.
People think they have it tough. I hear it everyday, how hard their life is.
Raymond King has never had it easy. NEVER. Believe me on this one. However bad things might seem, take solace that you didn’t face the struggles and obstacles this young man has encountered since birth.
Ray came to Streetfront for his grade 10 year. His early school years were filled with upheavals and new beginnings. Consistency and stability were totally absent. Every report card had the same, classic, kiss of death comment, “Raymond has great potential BUT…..”
He definitely struggled in school but the teacher’s were absolutely correct about one thing – the kid had the goods. He just didn’t operate the way they needed him to.
His high school career careened off course pretty quickly. He was asked to leave his high school towards the end of grade 8. He joined an alternative program and found some stability but was still way, way off course. He entered Streetfront in September of 2010, very skeptical of what we were going to offer him.
The first few weeks weren’t super positive. Ray showed up and participated but his heart wasn’t really in it. He had an aloofness and air of superiority that I was unsure how to tackle. His passive aggressive tendencies were well-earned, I knew that after reading his file but I couldn’t earn his respect. It was getting towards late November and I decided to take a different tack.
He had become a very consistent runner with the program, knocking off 10 km after 10 km but he always ran with a friend from his former high school. I was always at the back, picking up any kids who were struggling. I decided one day to go out with the two of them and see if I could take a bit of that smugness off of his face. The run started out slowly and then the pace quickened and quickened. By the 3 km mark they knew what was up. There were no conversations on this run. At every stop light, we kept our eyes on the flashing figure and when it was time to go, we were off. To this day, I have never ran so hard. I’m not sure if they knew but I was breaking down. The last km is a downhill push towards Britannia Secondary and I put everything I had into it. When we pulled up to the portable, I looked over and knew they were dying too. We didn’t say anything. I shook their hand, like I do to every kid who has ever run a 10 during a training run, but remained silent. They knew what transpired. I hoped I had broken through.
The next few weeks were incredible. Ray started to pushing himself more in his academics. He went to Seattle with us and crushed his first full marathon. He started to be a better teammate in PE. He was becoming one of us. He started talking more, not to just us but to his classmates. The sneer and disdain that he once so proudly showed, was being replaced with a welcoming and playful disposition. As the year progressed, Ray turned into the leader of our school. He led in the classroom, led on our outdoor trips, led in our tournaments and led in his commitment to our school.
He left us after his grade 10 year and returned to the high school that kicked him out in grade 8. I told him to walk back into that school and show them what he had accomplished, not in an “f-you”, kind of way but rather in a “… I’m not the kid you used to know” kind of way. And that he did.
He went back and made the honour roll. He went back and starred on the basketball team. He went back and proved to all the doubters and hopefully to one nasty VP, that kids can change if given the support and challenged in the right way.
Ray went on to Langara and then transferred to Simon Fraser University. He is in the fourth year of his Criminology Degree. He is preparing to write the L.S.A.T., which he will write in the spring. We will be there when he crosses the stage to get his degree, along with his amazing grandfather, David Webb, who has supported and cared for Ray for most of his life. We will be there when Ray passes the Bar. We will always be there for Ray because since he left in grade 10, he has never forgot us. He has run every single marathon we’ve participated in since 2010 and every half marathon. That’s 14 fulls and 6 halfs. He has been the big brother to a hundred or more Streetfront kids who grew up in the same world that he came from.
I have NEVER heard Raymond King complain about anything. Nothing. He puts his head down and does the work. That’s what a man does. That’s Raymond King.
If you are interested in other Streetftont stories or would like to donate to our Street2Peak Project (the largest Canadian field study project in Canadian history) please follow the links below.
Here’s another Streetfront gem.
Please meet Frank Joseph. Frankie came to Streetfront after a rough start to his high school life. Always precocious and opinionated, he struggled to find acceptance in his grade 8 year. It was “suggested” that he find a new school. Streetfront became his new school.
Frankie quickly ingratiated himself to the Streetfront staff. A natural athlete, Frankie always felt most comfortable be it l dropping into Hastings skate bowl as a 9 year old or working at his crossovers on the blacktop. He quickly latched onto the physical components of our program. Within days, Frankie was running three 10 km runs each week. By the end of November of his 1st year at Streetfront, he successfully ran the Seattle full marathon as a 13 year old. The troubles and conflicts that had dominated his school life were slowly fading into the background – what was emerging was the talent and confidence that was lying in trust inside that growing body.
Frankie was always a risk taker but they were the wrong kind of risks. What he wasn’t initially prepared to do was commit to his education. I’ve always believed that once we “got” the kid hooked, we could leverage the physical and psychological gains we’ve made and translate that into taking more risks academically. Frankie took on that challenge. By the end of his grade 10 year, he was our top student.
He was flourishing. He decided to enter Britannia Secondary for the remainder of his high school career. The teachers quickly found the same amazing kid we had got to know over the past two years. Frankie continued his connection to Streetfront as a peer tutor and mentor to our younger students. He took considerable interest in our younger Aboriginal boys, who he could see so much of himself in them. He joined the fabled Senior Boy’s basketball team; was selected to participate in the Honourable Paul Martin Initiative, which was an incredible entrepreneurial business program designed for a select cadre of Aboriginal students; participated in building homes for destitute families in Mexico; worked tirelessly to support his family; attended Aboriginal Rediscovery Camps in the summers; you name it, Frankie was involved.
Frankie graduated from High School and wanted to give back even more. He raised funds to attend a leadership/fellowship program in Oliver, BC. This culminated with him doing extensive outreach work in the slums of India.
Once Frankie returned to Canada, he made the decision to enter UBC and start his Education degree. He is currently in his second year and is quickly becoming a star in his program. Like Jesse Costucci-Phillips, his goal is to become an alternative education teacher.
Frankie has never backed down from a challenge. He thrives when things get tough. We’ve witnessed him become the distinguished and accomplished young man that he is today.
Oh yeah, he’s 20 years old and has already run 13 full marathons and 4 half marathons.
I’d like to introduce you to Frank Joseph, an all-star if there ever was one.
If you are interested in other Streetftont stories or would like to donate to our Street2Peak Project (the largest Canadian field study project in Canadian history) please follow the links below.
I’d like to introduce you to Toni Gladstone. Toni went to Streetfront for three glorious years.
She entered grade 8 about as weak and unmotivated as any kid I’ve ever come across. Barry once reminisced that she tried to pay someone to travel the 30 feet to get her something from the vending machine. But as feeble as she may have presented, there was no denying a mischievous little streak in her eyes and a beautifully intelligent, yet very reluctant, mind.
She stuck with us and started to believe in herself. First her grades started to improve, then she had the burgeoning confidence to start applying herself in our PE classes. Then came an interest in pushing herself in our running program.
The staff were in disbelief. This formerly withdrawn and broken down kid, was quickly becoming our best overall student.
By the time she graduated from Streetfront in grade 10, she was an A student, attended at 98%, ran a half marathon, played on the senior ultimate team and was fully committed to her church.
She continued her excellence at Britannia Secondary and graduated with ease, two years later. From there she did humanitarian work in Mexico building houses, continued with her fellowship and then moved to Saskatchewan (the kid has such great taste) and started university.
She just finished her B.A and has decided to move to Winnipeg to help inner-city kids. Something she knows a thing about.
Lets stop focussing on the inanity and debasement of what’s important in this world. Find the Toni’s that are out there. They will make us smile and know that things will all work out.
Congratulations, Toni. You are as beautiful as they come!!!!!!!
Congratulations to Streetfront student Emily Lloyd on representing herself, her classmates, her family, and Streetfront well while telling her story on Breakfast Television. Way to promote Streetfront and the Street2Peak Project!
Watch for yourself here…
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.