SURREY — Barbara Kolbus well remembers the day Shania Twain came to Hjorth Road Elementary and began to help students cope with the struggles of life.
“She was very gracious,” recalled Kolbus, the school’s principal, “and the thing I loved the most was when she was talking, she looked at the kids as much as the grownups. The kids wanted to ask questions, and she answered them first. I like how she honoured them and included them in the day, and it was a great way to set the tone about what this program is all about.”
Twain, the Canadian country-pop star, made a top-secret stop at the Guildford-area school in June 2015 for a press event to announce funding from her Shania Kids Can Foundation for a “clubhouse” program at the school.
The singer, best known for hit songs such as “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” launched the foundation to help kids dealing with poverty, neglect and difficult situations at home – much like she did growing up in rural Ontario.
The foundation’s vision is to “provide children who are at risk of losing their opportunity to be the best they can be, because they are suffering from poverty, disregard, abuse or an overall dysfunctional family lifestyle, the chance to overcome the effects that these challenges may be having on their ability to function at an optimum level during the school day.”
At Hjorth Road, the only school in B.C. where the SKC program operates, funding was put in place to help students who need assistance with the basics of getting a proper education, Twain said at the press conference, held in partnership with The Dilawri Foundation and Surrey Board of Education.
“We couldn’t afford shampoo sometimes, or soap,” Twain said of her upbringing. “I’d go to school dirty, with greasy hair, or we’d run of out toothpaste. So basic things like that, we supply those things…. (For the students), it changes the course of their whole day, just something as simple as that.”
The funding commitment for the program at Hjorth Road is $65,000 a year for five years, said Liane Ricou, the school district’s manager of business development.
“We’re in Year 3 here now, and we’re working together to look at funding after those five years, so there’s no expectation the program will be dropped after that, it’s just the initial commitment is for five years,” Ricou told the Now-Leader.
Outreach worker Breanne Rennert runs the program at Hjorth Road, where 25 students are able to take part five days a week – before, during and after school.
The SKC “clubhouse” at the school, located in the first-floor room where Twain held her press conference, includes things like board games, a reading area, crafts, toys and, in the middle of the room, an air-hockey table.
“In the morning, this is probably the most exciting place in the whole school, because there’s lots of energy with a lot of kids visiting,” Rennert explained. “Some kids go to breakfast club and then they come here.… It’s open to all ages in here, and certain days are geared toward different ages, just for the different activities we have available.”
In part, Hjorth Road Elementary was chosen for the SKC program due to need and also available space.
”In our school, we have 220 kids and 100 of them could qualify for the Shania program,” Kolbus said, “so we choose them based on what age will work together well, who’s the most needy. We include kids who are really isolated as well – those who aren’t able to make friends easily. Those are tough decisions to make sometimes.”
Four kids involved in the SKC – Grade 4 students Gailan and Dayton, along with Grade 6-ers Emily and Jaila – enthusiastically talked to the Now-Leader about the program, which has included field trips to Science World and Skyzone trampoline park. Cooking, science and music lessons have also taken place.
“We made pizza and stuff,” Dayton said confidently.
“Breanne taught us nice manners,” Gailan added with a giggle.
In an earlier conversation, Rennert recalled one girl who made great strides last year, her first as program head there.
“We had a student who was a very emotional child who had gone through some difficult things in her past, and she came into the program very isolated, very unsure of herself, and she didn’t open up to me right away, or any of the kids,” Rennert said. “She would just sit and colour most of the time, and that was OK. She really enjoyed it, was good at it, and she continued with that.
“But as the year progressed, she started opening up really slowly, and there was a group of girls in her class. She started opening up to the girls and friendships started to happen, with her and three other girls who were sort of in a similar story, of coming to school and not really connecting with anyone. So now I see them, and their friendship has flourished. They hang out on weekends, they tell me about the stuff they’ve done, and over the summer they spent, like, every day together. To me, that’s the best success I can see. When I’m not here, over the summer, for example, I can see the success continuing over the summer. That’s gratifying, definitely.”
Rani Gandham, manager of the school district’s Community Schools Partnership, said SKC is “off to a great start” in its third year at Hjorth Road.
“The Shania Kids Can Foundation provides Community Schools Partnership with the resources to hire a staff to support the school community and children who may be seeking additional supports,” Gandham told the Now-Leader.
“Because of the SKC Clubhouse, children are able to gain new experiences and spend time with another positive caring adult in their circle. Children are ready, able and motivated to learn because they have the support of the SKC Clubhouse staff and the Foundation behind them.”
That time Twain visited the school, she was in the region for a pair of concert dates at Rogers Arena. The stadium in Vancouver will again play host to Twain and band for two shows next May – but there’s no word yet whether Twain will again visit Hjorth Road Elementary.
“All the kids wanted to be part of it, but beforehand there was this huge secrecy, so they didn’t know what they were being a part of,” Kolbus said of Twain’s visit in 2015. “They didn’t know it was Shania coming here, because we couldn’t tell anybody she was coming. All they knew it was somebody really important coming. Some of the little ones had no idea who she was, of course, so they were asking, ‘Who was that lady?’ I told them, ‘Ask your mom, I bet she knows who Shania is.’”