Seven-year-old Ximena is extremely proud to have a friend, Rafael, who speaks both Spanish and English. And, she and her brother, Bruno are very excited to meet up with him and Sebastian each morning at a United Way BC School’s Out Summer Camp in East Vancouver’s Little Mountain area. In fact, Bruno often wants to cut through a neighbour’s yard so he can get to camp sooner! Ximena, Bruno and their mom, Cynthia, arrived in Canada from Mexico just over two months ago, so making friends is a big deal.
“For the children, it is very important because they are newcomers, they don’t have very many friends. A lot of the time the family does not have the means to pay for an expensive summer camp, so, this is an opportunity to meet other kids, play and, in the meantime, they learn some English,” says Arely, a settlement worker working with Latin American families at United Way BC partner agency, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House.
Much more than fun
During the school year, United Way School’s Out after-school programming provides healthy, safe, educational activities for children in Grades 1-7 between 3 – 6 pm at BC elementary schools. However, at the end of June, many kids lose access to the vital out-of-school time supports, and healthy food and snacks, that they’re used to.
United Way School’s Out Summer gives kids access to free or low-cost quality summer programs that are critical for their emotional and social well-being, academic success, and physical health, and overall well-being. What’s special about this free, daily School’s Out Summer Program in East Vancouver is that it focuses on helping newly arrived kids and their families adjust to life in Canada. Those attending this program have been in the country less than five years. For many, like Cynthia and her children, they have been here under six months.
“We set out to provide a comfortable safe space for children and their families to support the transition to school or grade-to-grade transition. We know that families need support navigating these systems. They are trying to settle themselves here, trying to navigate a school system that is quite foreign,” says Andrea Canales, Manager of Children & Youth Services at Little Mountain Neighbourhood House.
Many newly arrived families have precarious status or have been displaced by war and are led by single mothers. These families are often more isolated and unaware of or do not have resources for summer camps.
“The goal is to ensure they are connected and that they feel welcome…so they can build community with our program and away from our program,” Andrea says. “Families come together and are providing support to one another.”
For Cynthia and Ana, being able to connect with a settlement worker like Arely and other mothers is very helpful.
“There is a lot of information that Arely provides that I don’t know where to find it,” Cynthia says. Ana, who is from Columbia, agrees. As a refugee claimant, there is a lot of paperwork to be filled out. Arely offers that support.
“We provide them with services for finding jobs and, if they have financial problems, we have a food distribution program at [Little Mountain Neighbourhood House]. If we don’t have the means to help them, we refer them to the proper agency that will help them,” Arely says. She also provides English language and translation support.
“Summer Camp experiences help foster greater readiness to learn come fall and are how we can equip children with the skills and confidence needed to more easily make friends and succeed socially and academically in a new grade and new home,” Trisha Dulku, Strategic Initiatives Manager at United Way BC.
In 2023/24, United Way BC will invest almost $2.9 million in out-of-school time supports across the province, about 36% of those children are newcomers to Canada or refugees.
Helping families helps children
This Summer, the School’s Out Summer Thriving Minds camp will serve about 60 children. Daily from 9 am – 4 pm in two-week segments, throughout July and August, children like Ximena, Bruno, Sebastian and Rafael can meet up and develop positive relationships with their peers and adults.
“Ximena and Bruno like it very much. They even come home with English words that they didn’t know, and they feel like that this is their place,” says Cynthia through Arely’s translation.
Sebastian’s mother, Ana agrees: “He wants to get up early in the morning and he just wants to come here. He just loves it.”
Helping community helps us all
Making friends and getting support as newcomers for these families might not have happened at all this Summer. On July 2, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House experienced a fire that heavily damaged the the neighbourhood house, putting School’s Out Summer and other programs at risk. Friends, neighbours, community organizations and city staff immediately stepped up to offer support, showing just how important having strong community connections is.
“We were able to reach out to Vancouver Fountain Alliance Church, which hosts our School’s Out Summer program, and another church around the other programs and the response was immediate. It was of course, we want to help. Of course, we want to be there for all of you. Of course, we know you and we are good neighbors,” Andrea says. Supporters stepped forward with paper, staplers, chalk and more.
Thanks to this support, bright and early July 4, the first day of summer camp, Ximena, Bruno, Sebastian and Rafael got to meet new friends, make new memories and get better prepared for school this Fall.
“It has been really humbling to see the value and the power of relationships. We lost a physical space but we gained tonnes of community. We are grateful and the kids love it here.”
This Summer, 1,500 children will attend United Way BC School’s Out Summer programs. Currently, there are 400 children on the waitlist for programming. Over 40 of those children are waiting to get into the School’s Out Summer Thriving Minds Camp in East Vancouver.
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