‘Run for your life,’ could have been the subtitle of the book Streetfront. The real subtitle is ‘Tales about perseverance, resilience and running in Downtown Eastside.’ Running is an important part of the curriculum in Streetfront, and it changes lives. The school has the largest community of High School Marathon runners in Canada. However, the running is not an aim but a means to an end. The book Streetfront tells the story of this unusual school and its students. They grow up in a disadvantaged neighbourhood and what they learn from running gives them a chance in life.
How come a Groningen student writes a book about a school in Vancouver?
Ryan Bolt: ‘Last year I attended the Summer School ‘Diversity, Encounter and Inclusion’, which was given by Dr Bettina van Hoven and Dr Gwenda van der Vaart of the RUG. During the Summer School, one of the participants came with a story that left everyone speechless. It was the teacher Trevor who talked about his school for children from socially weak environments. His story impacted the entire group, me too. That's why we wanted to do something with that. In the end it became a book.’
Running is an essential part of the curriculum at Streetfront. Physical education and challenge are considered essential. The students go on adventurous camping trips. They confront the students with challenges that teach perseverance, but also strengthen the bond between them.
Streetfront was created in 1977. By now the school has the largest community of marathon runners in Canada. The real performance of the students is not completing the 42 kilometres and 195 metres as quickly as possible, but the change the school and they themselves bring about in their lives.
‘The students talk about how running restores their self-respect, how they learn perseverance,’ says Ryan. ‘That is important, because they are growing up in an area where you don't get any self-respect. You don't just apply to Streetfront. Canada has a system of schools for students who cannot go anywhere else, because of their problems. For example, because they play truant, use drugs, or because of a criminal record. Streetfront is a school that is only for the most difficult group of students. The young people who are ‘at risk’, as we say. The school is in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, which is known as the most deprived neighbourhood in Canada,’ says Ryan. An outsider wouldn't want to go there, because it's so dangerous. But...that's where these people grow up and where they need to navigate their way through life. That's why the school seeks out the young people where they are, on the street. Hence the name.’
Streetfront tells the story of a special school in twelve portraits of students. They talk about what makes the school so special and about what it means or meant to them. Twelve stories about growing up in the worst and most disadvantaged neighbourhood of Vancouver in Canada, and how the Streetfront school helps young people to find their way in a difficult world.
Dr Bettina van Hoven: ‘Another unusual aspect is that many of students of Streetfront are indigenous people. The indigenous people of Canada have long been marginalised, and they still are. Families suffer from an intergenerational trauma. It's not that long ago that children of indigenous people were removed from their parents to be raised in government schools. That involved violence and abuse. It means the current generations have lost touch with their roots, they lost their culture and their parents are traumatised. To the indigenous people we are outsiders, we represent white colonialism. It's only because I visit often and teach Summer Schools, that I've been able to build up trust. The fact that these young people wanted to tell their stories to Ryan and his fellow students is nothing short of exceptional.’
Ryan: ‘We interviewed many students and ex-students of the school. They often tell stories about how the school changed their lives dramatically, how it saved them from a future without a future. In their lives they come up against every possible setback you can imagine. Separated or addicted parents, drugs and street violence, you name it. Nobody who provides support or believes in them. They often have little or no self-respect. At school they run at least three times a week, from five to ten kilometres. They are poor, so they run in their ordinary shoes and clothes. Many students talk about how they didn't like it at all to start with, but how they started to feel themselves getting stronger and gaining in self-confidence. Through running they discovered that they do have perseverance, that they are worth something and can do something. Many ex-students have continued to run, and on special occasions they join the current students. It makes the school more than just a school, it is a real community, an alternative family where people find support.’
As a participant in the Summer School of University College of the University of Groningen, Ryan thought that the world should know the story of Streetfront. That required perseverance on his part: “We worked on the book for a year. We had never written a book before, so where do you start? As a business student, I deal with numbers and calculations and now we're talking about people and changing lives. The Coronavirus measures meant that all the interviews had to be online. Due to the time difference with Canada we did that at six in the morning. Getting up early in other words. The most difficult? How do you tell the story of somebody else in a respectful and positive way that makes the interviewee feel comfortable. I did my best, but sometimes students said “I'd rather not have that in the book.” And I understand, because the things they tell and lived through are dramatic.’
Take the story of Jacob Ainscough. The 17-year-old was about to travel to New Zealand with a bunch of students for a hike when he received news at the airport that his father had died of an overdose. What do you do? Jacob decided to join the trip. He felt immensely said, but felt surrounded by people who had similar experiences and who were like a family to him. The physically tough hike took some effort and perseverance, but he also experienced its healing power. “There is always somebody next to me who experienced something similar, who has their own story,” he said.’
Van Hoven: ‘Anna's design is also really important to this book. Right from the start we said that we wanted to have a book that looked good enough to be in the big bookshops in town. The content of the book is extremely powerful. It is of interest to anyone, but particularly to those who work in education’.
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