MONTREAL, MAY 16, 2011 – They call Japan the Land of the Rising Sun. While the nickname dates back centuries, standing on the banks of the Pacific as Far East as one can go, it’s clear that the name rings very true.
Whether or not the symbolism echoed by Japan’s moniker played a role in the origins of “Sun Youth,”,since the organization’s establishment in 1954, the humble group has both literally and metaphorically brought the giving and welcoming spirit of Japan to Le Plateau, paving the way for the sun to rise in thousands of Montrealers, both young and old, giving them the promise of hope, friendship and in some cases, a new life.
For the past decade, the hope which has flooded out from the streets of Le Plateau has been absorbed throughout the English Montreal School Board. What began as small anti-graffiti initiatives at St. Dorothy Elementary School in St. Michel grew almost overnight into an overflowing wave of activities and in-person academic, physical and emotional support throughout the EMSB’s East End schools.
“We’re like the Jack of All Trades in the schools,” said Tony De Francesco, a dedicated Sun Youth staff member at Dante Elementary School in St. Léonard. “We try to mediate problems and provide conflict resolution, step into classes when necessary, set up activities and do whatever we can to get involved with the student body on a personal level. Essentially, we’re here to break social barriers and make each school a more inclusive environment.”
The programs operated by Sun Youth under the umbrella of the EMSB are literally all encompassing. While sports activities such as soccer tournaments and ball hockey games pique the interest of some, other students prefer the one-on-one time with the staff members or even some quiet time at their study halls. Every school has a different need and from their first day on the job, the staff begins to tailor their activities to what will work best at their new stomping grounds.
“The staff members are really there to befriend the students and develop a relationship that teachers can’t,” added Maria Jose Raposo, a supervisor of the in-school program. “The parents love it, they just wish there was the opportunity for us to be even more involved in the schools.”
As in all programs like this, funding comes directly from the schools and principals are forced to make the tough decisions. Moreover, as a non-profit organization, the budget of Sun Youth is stretched between their myriad of social assistance and protection programs, preventing any in-school expansion from their own coffers.
“We’re all former Sun Youth kids,” said De Francesco. “We’ve gone through the programs, attended the day camps and developed a real knack for working with children. We make a real effort to be a major part of the curriculum and school. We try to give the extra attention to the children that is sometimes lacking in the schools. We walk the fine line between teacher and companion.”
As the school year slowly winds to a close, the rise of the hot summer sun begins a critical time of year for the organization. While their staff members will no longer be in the schools, they will be roaming the streets through the Bike Patrol, manning the sports recreation centre, summer camps, food bank and clothing shelter and undoubtedly providing the critical in-home short-term crisis assistance for the less fortunate.
Yet, while the organization and its army of volunteers will work tirelessly to support its countless outreach programs, at the heart of Sun Youth will always be its namesake, and for the staff members in school, August 31 is only a few weeks away.
“We hope that when these children are older they too will give back and participate, whether physically or through donations, in the programs that helped them when they were young,” added De Francesco. “We are working with the youth, not just today, but for tomorrow as well.”