On September 2, 2022, as students and parents across the country prepared to kick-off the last unofficial weekend of summer, a small but significant gathering was held in the sunny back lot of the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre (CRWC) in Toronto.
A young boy from Iran can barely contain his excitement as he is presented with his backpack and school supplies to start Grade 2 in Toronto.
Rounding the corner of the centre’s unassuming three-building façade, one might have been surprised to hear the sounds of a steel drum – albeit played somewhat haphazardly by a grinning 5-year old boy – or to hear the laughter of children, accompanied by their parents, as they made slime and waited for the day’s big event.
“Our Back-to-School Barbeque is all about the kids,” says Sam Chaise, the centre’s Executive Director. “Each year, about 50% of our residents are school age children who have fled to Canada with their parents, or a single parent, and arrived with no place to stay, few possessions and very little money. For many, the start of school next week will mean leaving their parent’s side for the first time since they fled their home country, and it may even be the first time they’ve had an opportunity to attend school regularly.”
The intent of the barbecue, he explains, is to help the children feel excited about a day that can bring great trepidation and anxiety – and to equip them with the supplies they need to succeed.
“We are very grateful for the donation from the Gay Lea Foundation, which has allowed us to purchase backpacks and school supplies for 30 children living in our emergency shelter, and an additional 45 for children who have recently moved out into neighbourhoods around the city,” Chaise continues. “Your gift has helped to ensure that every child has the basic supplies they need to engage in the classroom while adding to their feelings of pride, self-worth, and dignity.”
Attending the event on behalf of the Gay Lea Foundation, Gay Lea Foods Communication Manager and Foundation director Robin Redstone was struck by what she said felt like a genuine sense of community at the CRWC.
An eight-year-old boy from El Salvador picks up some IVANHOE NOTHING BUT cheese snacks for his first day at school.
“After passing the young steel drum musician – who was accompanied by the centre’s music teacher on guitar – and the group making slime, I was directed to a table of waiting backpacks. Each one had clearly been carefully curated with a particular child in mind and was labeled with their name. You could tell the staff cared deeply about each of them.”
Manny Wong, who works in Donor Development for the CRWC, says families come to the centre from all over the world and stay for an average of 4-5 months, allowing staff and residents to build and develop deep connections. In addition to shelter, food, basic needs and settlement services, residents at the centre also have access to a number of specialized programs, including after-school Literacy, Music, and Fitness programs for children, summer day camps, a Women’s Wellness Program, monthly educational workshops, and a myriad of other community-building events on top of the Back-to-School Barbecue.
“The backpack initiative is actually a part of our After-School Literacy Program, which supports our children as they work to catch up with their peers in English literacy,” says Manny. “With the support of the Gay Lea Foundation, these children will now be equipped to accomplish tasks at school despite potential language barriers, making their first experience of school in Canada a positive one and helping to build what we hope will be a foundation for successful lifelong learning.”
Those too young to attend school were each given a small toy and book.
“It was incredible to see the excitement on the faces of the children as they received their backpacks and to know that our Foundation dollars made it happen,” says Redstone.
“The outstanding staff and programs at the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre are making a real difference for refugee families in Toronto, and for us at Gay Lea Foods to be able to play a small role in that is something really special.”
About the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre
Located just minutes from Christie and Bloor in the city’s Annex neighbourhood, the CRWC has provided emergency shelter and a warm welcome for refugee families from all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds for more than two decades. Approximately 300 homeless refugee claimants (or 100 families) from war-torn countries around the world arrive at the 76-bed shelter centre each year, where they receive care, support, and the assistance they need to pursue their refugee claim and begin their new lives in Canada. The centre also provides an Outreach Program for families after they have moved out of the shelter to provide on-going settlement, referrals for essential services, and basic needs support. Visit https://christiestreetrc.com to learn more.