Long before the first bell rings in the halls of Alberni Valley Secondary School, there is a flurry of activity as volunteers gather to prepare breakfast for hundreds of hungry students. By the time classes begin the ADSS Breakfast Club will have served 400 hungry students at the school and 120 at the Eighth Avenue Learning Centre, with the help of volunteers from service clubs, community groups and businesses.
The club has come a long way since it started in 2008 with three toasters in a hallway. It now has a dedicated room and has expanded to provide healthy snacks during the day and a discreet supply cupboard with items such as school supplies, hygiene kits and clothing.
The longest-running volunteer and overall coordinator of the operation is Melody Burton, who founded the club with her friend Denise Lange 15 years ago when their children attended ADSS. Eventually Lange left to work full time, but Burton has stayed on, continuing to fundraise and organize volunteers.
Burton was born and raised in Port Alberni and recalls that as a child, she was aware that many of her classmates came to school hungry. At the time, there were no such clubs at the schools.
“I grew up seeing a need when I was younger,” she said. Years later, when her daughter Samantha was in elementary school, Burton saw there was still a need. “I was always sending her with a second lunch because she’d give her lunch away.”
By the time her daughter was in middle school, the Parent Advisory Council (PAC), which Burton had been involved with since her daughter’s kindergarten days, started supplying food to students who needed it. Then her daughter moved on to ADSS, which didn’t have a breakfast program.
“If the kids are hungry in elementary and middle school, they’re going to be hungry in high school,” said Burton. She and Lange approached the principal at the time, Mike Ruttan, who gave the go-ahead to their plan.
Burton knows first hand what a struggle it can be to get through high school without resources. She attended ADSS as a teen but left home at 16 and worked full time to support herself so transferred to VAST, now known as the Eighth Avenue Learning Centre, as it offered a more flexible schedule for working students.
“These kids have enough to deal with and it’s not their fault, there are just circumstances.”
This type of support keeps students at school and fosters a sense of caring and connection, she said. “When we started it we noticed that many more students were saying hello and thanking us.”
School officials and community supporters also credit the breakfast program with helping to raise graduation rates at ADSS.
Volunteerism is nothing new to Burton, who started out as a candy striper and junior auxiliary member at the hospital, and she points out that it benefits both volunteers and the community. It runs in the family too, as her husband Joe and daughter Samantha, who has moved back to Port Alberni, are helping out with the Breakfast Club too.
She urges everyone to get out and volunteer. “Just get out there and give back. There’s always someone out there who needs help.”