Ron Maclean of Hockey Night in Canada, stood in a classroom at George Brown College (GBC) and told the story of Frank O'Dea, the co-founder of Second Cup, who was at one time a homeless panhandler living on the streets of Toronto. Ten students listened carefully to the account and watched as Maclean simultaneously jotted a phone number on the blackboard.
"Frank got off the street," the hockey commentator said, "because he had mentors who helped him. "This is my home phone number." Maclean pointed to the blackboard. "If any of you ever need help please feel free to call me or my wife," he concluded.
The men and women Maclean was speaking to were all students of Ve'ahavta's Street Academy (VSA), a school for the homeless or near-homeless started in 2011. Maclean is the co-chairperson together with local Jewish community members, Paul Lindzon and Karen Ehrlich.
VSA is one of the most successful programs of a local non-profit called Ve'ahavta: The Canadian Jewish Humanitarian & Relief Committee which was started in 1996. Its mission statement is to encourage all peoples to play a role in "tikkun olam," repairing the world.
Maclean joined the school's leadership team after hosting a Ve'ahavta gala and has lectured at each one of the three eight-week sessions. His explanation for doing so is a philosophical one and rooted in the concept that we are all somehow connected and responsible for one another. I asked him to illustrate his belief. He responded: "Avrum, a track and field sprint relay coach Mike Murray of Vancouver liked to say, 'The power in each of us comes from all of us.' That's VSA. When I'm in the classroom, there are always two teachers in the room."
Maclean added that he finds it easy to reveal his true character at VSA knowing that "each student by virtue of his or her attendance had the courage to do likewise."
And he's right. I have also taught VSA classes and when I did I learned that my students were men and women who have had brutal lives right here in Canada, and the fact that they still had hope and enough gumption to apply and attend VSA was huge. Their stories reminded me of those I've heard from Holocaust survivors and victims of torture.
One student in the sex trade said her goal was simply to be normal after having suffered an entire life of sexual and mental abuse. Another learner told me about the day his alcoholic father walked him, as a 10-year old, to Children's AID and left him there. A third student shared with the class how at 14 years old she would have to step over her cracked-out mother lying on the floor, to exit their apartment and go to school.
Indeed it takes a lot of bravery to commit to attending a formal school setting knowing that failure is a real possibility. I consider my own fears of looking silly in front of an audience I'm speaking to or falling down in front of my peers. I appreciate what Maclean meant -- "the courage to do likewise."
VSA was the brainstorm of Theresa Schrader, a former prostitute and crack addict. Two years ago she called me with a request for a summer job after winning Ve'ahavta's Creative Writing Contest for the Homeless and cleaning up her life. I told her about an article I had read in the New York Times of a man who gave philosophy courses in the streets of the Big Apple and how it might be a good idea for us to do something similar -- to launch a school on the streets of Toronto. The Jewish people are called "the People of the Book" and I figured appealing to the intellect of those living on or near the street could strengthen their core and soul and perhaps be a solution to their homelessness and suffering.
Schrader agreed but with her characteristic moxxy challenged me by saying it would be wiser to take the school inside to a controlled environment and call it an "Academy," a place of higher learning for older students.
After some finagling with my board VSA was born. GBC became our full partners and offered our students all the advantages of the college's regular students including a gym and library pass. We decided we would pay the students to study so they wouldn't have to worry about income for that period of time. (In the Orthodox Jewish world men will often get paid to learn Torah. This system of pay-and-learn is called Kolell). We would bring in catered food every day so they wouldn't be hungry when they learned and we would buy the students a metropass so travel would not be an issue.
Schrader assembled a very reputable cadre of teachers including Michael Cooke, the former vice-president of Academics of GBC, Harvard-educated Elan Divon, and local businessman and philanthropist, Michael Diamond. Class themes include: communications, life skills, awareness, diversity, academics, hope and inspiration.
Ve'ahavta hopes to enhance VSA so that it becomes a full-time school for the homeless and possibly franchise the concept around the world as a way of rescuing people from the horrors of living on the street by building their confidence through a worthy intellectual pursuit.
"For those hours together (at VSA), we're in an honest, loving moment which we can hold going forward to settle us in storms....That someone will love us, and that we may love them. " - Ron Maclean