BACK TO SCHOOL PICNIC
The Back to School Picnic (BTSP) is a grassroots initiative that brings local communities together each year. This event celebrates children as they prepare to go back to school with free school supply kits and a variety of fun activities.
HISTORY OF THE BTSP
The Aboriginal Back to School Picnic (BTSP) was first launched in 2002 by Surrounded by Cedar Child & Family Services (SCCFS). The idea for the picnic was born from a young mother’s story, who was on her way to collect school supplies at a local city shelter location. SCCFS’ Executive Director at that time, Shelley Johnson, happened to be having a working lunch meeting downtown with two other Indigenous women, mothers. Songhees band member, LaVatta Frank, recognized the young woman walking by in the rain, pushing a baby in a stroller, while two young school-aged children held onto either side. LaVatta motioned for the young woman to come in from the rain, and this is really where the BTSP started its birth.
This young mother shared that to collect school supplies for her children, she had to bring her children with her as proof of their existence. In addition to their birth certificates, report cards and her income assistance statements, the children had to appear with their parent to be eligible for free school supplies. This young mom also shared that she was worried about the safety of her children at the city shelter as it housed many men who were actively experiencing mental health and addiction issues and she feared that harassment, outbursts and violence were prevalent among shelter users and others in the area. This conversation lasted less than five minutes.
Heavy silence embraced the table as this young mom and her children walked away in the rain. There was an unspoken understanding of the impacts and inter-generational trauma that the Canada’s Indian Residential School project left Indigenous communities reeling in. There was also a shared ability to relate to the desperation of this young mother, living in poverty, and her fear of judgement for being unable to provide for her children’s education, her isolation in the city, and her worries about the physical safety of herself and her children.
The three Indigenous women sitting at that table knew they had to create something better. They started to sketch out ideas onto a napkin. A free picnic in the park, with old-style races and games, face painting and a barbecue. Encourage all members of a child’s family, Elders and drummers and singers to attend. Ensure it is open to any Indigenous family. Whatever type of event held, never ask for income statements, report cards or birth certificates – allow families who need help to access it while having their dignity remain intact!
Within a couple of hours, several sister agencies of SCCFS along with the Indigenous Education department of the local school district had all agreed to commit funds and volunteers to support an Indigenous led BTSP. Volunteers sourced donations and sponsors and also identified volunteer roles and responsibilities for the day. SCCFS staff members, along with volunteers, compared the contributions to the school supply lists needed for each grade. Supplies were purchased and an “assembly line” stuffed backpacks filled with all of the supplies children would need based on their grade level. Forty-five kits were created for that first event and precisely forty-five school aged children were among the 100 attendees at a community park for that first BTSP event. Of those attendees was that young mom who shared her story on that rainy day, along with her children and three older family members.
The BTSP has become an annual event, which has grown in numbers each successive year. In 2008, SCCFS was concerned about its ability to carry on with the event as hundreds and hundreds of children were now attending. Recognizing the positive impact the BTSP had in community, and the support it provided to so many Indigenous families in Victoria, SCCFS agreed that the event could not be let go and a BTSP Coordinator was contracted.
Following the 2009 BTSP, there were 50 left-over and the BTSP Coordinator sent 10 packages to each of the five other Friendship Centres on Vancouver Island. This gesture launched the BTSP Tour in 2010, which would see the BTSP take place in communities up and down the Island, over to the mainland, and then into the North.