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StreetFront Alternative Program

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Maybe we start out running as a way to get fit. Or to lose a few pounds. Or simply because the barriers to entry are so low—just grab a pair of shoes and go.

But with every kilometre we tackle, each goal we hit and move past, we learn something. It creates a feedback loop of accomplishment. It teaches us core values we need throughout lifecommitment, determination, perseverance. Soon, the original goals are replaced with something a bit more ambiguous.

We run because it makes us feel good.

Trevor Stokes, Teacher and Director of East Vancouver’s StreetFront Program at Britannia Secondary School, knows these lessons all too well.

The at-risk kids in his program start running for a different reason - it is a requirement of the program.  However, the lessons they come away with are the same.

The grit and determination needed to start and push through the 3x weekly runs are life lessons - do the work necessary to keep pushing forward and you will be rewarded. 

The rewards look different for each student, but generally running improves self-confidence and pride and gives them a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves. As many of the kids have grown up without someone believing in them, it allows them to believe in themselves.

In Trevor's own words, read Streetfront's inspirational history:

Craftsman Collision, at the corner of Powell and Victoria Drive, knows a lot about the Streetfront Alternative Program. The shop has been around since 1977, fixing cars and employing kids from the neighbourhood. The employees nod and wave when you go past, nothing too special aside from the tacit recognition that you are a “local” and deserve to be acknowledged. Cigarettes and coffee cups in hand, overalls dusted in white, the workers sit back telling jokes and commenting on life, while twenty kids jog past them. The kids jogging by don’t illicit any specific comment – they are a fixture – as common as the mailbox or the bus stop. A group of kids from the same program has been running this route for 38 years.  Three times a week. 44 weeks a year. I wonder what they think about us. I like to think they are quietly proud or at least impressed by these kids. I think they are. I know I am.

The Streetfront Alternative Program started in 1977.

Borne out of a need to offer a different kind of classroom experience for kids struggling with a traditional school environment, it became one of the programs that Britannia Secondary utilized to bring education and hope back to some of its most disenfranchised students. It was founded by two outdoor enthusiasts, John Jordan and Bill McMillan, both of whom found the four walls of a classroom stifling not only for their students but for themselves. They set out to create an outdoor education program that expanded the classroom, put an emphasis on physical education, and got kids excited about school and life.

One of the pillars of their new program was a mandatory running program.

Students and staff alike would go for a 5 km run, three times a week. The run was non-negotiable. The expectations were the same for everybody – go out and do your best. It was never about how fast you could do it; it was all about doing it. The run was therapy at its highest level. It improved the mind, the body and the soul. As Bill often told me, “the best counseling sessions I ever had in 40 years of working with youth, all came from the time we spent on the runs.” Rarely is there a concentrated block of time, devoted just to you and a student, be it as a counselor or a teacher. But the runs change that – running alongside a kid, you use every trick you’ve got to keep that kid moving; persuasion, guilt, threats, pleasantries but without a doubt the greatest motivator is just talking to the kid. Once the kid is embedded in the story that you are telling, they will slowly start to tell you their story. Before they realize it, the huffing and puffing has vanished and a slow and rhythmic stride has taken their place. They’ve hit a point of stasis – where time virtually is eliminated and the course, the conversation and the experience become everything. Watching silently, as a kid goes well beyond their expected capabilities, is a bewildering thing. There is not doubt that the mind is incredible, but its ability to be fooled is almost equally astonishing. Before the kid realizes it, they’ve eclipsed the 2 km they had established as their limit for the day, they turn the final corner and a fully completed 10 km is only steps away.

“The run” became a perfect metaphor for the kids at Streetfront.

Success in the running program required exactly what most of the kids were lacking – dedication; commitment; perseverance and passion. I’ve coached every sport you can imagine over the past twenty years and I can unequivocally say that getting students to run long distances is the single most challenging activity you can offer, EVER. There is no ball to entertain you. There is no net to tantalize you. No teammate to pick you up. No cheerleader to help your mind wander. There is not the ever-present hope of scoring a goal or a touchdown. There are only strides and more strides – every aspect of it, dependent on the intrinsic motivation of the kid. If the kid wants to stop, he or she will stop. Their brain and body are screaming for them to stop. My job is to make sure they don’t stop.

I’ve been teaching at Streetfront since 1999.I subbed there one day, found out they ran as a class, and finished my first 10 km in jeans and sneakers. The kids were dressed the same as I was but that was of their own choosing. Some didn’t have shorts to wear but most did. I tried to convince them of the benefits of new technologies – moisture wicking shirts; running jackets; or polypropylene tights but they politely rejected such offers. The longer I taught at Streetfront, the more I understood why – they were willing to run with me but they were not willing to drop their East Van persona. They’d give me their effort but not their pride. I could live with that. I still do.

The runs slowly started to change at Streetfront.

Eventually I took the program over and started to have more kids push themselves beyond our initial expectations. I remember running with Mauricio Garcia in 2000 and he was talking about wanting to run the Sun Run. He figured if we were doing all this training already why don’t we enter a race and see how we do. I thought that was a pretty intriguing idea ----- at first, and then I didn’t think it was such a great idea. The students I teach don’t feel very special about themselves. They are generally not a proud group. Building self-esteem is maybe the single most important goal we have in our program, so I thought about Mauricio’s comment through that lens. If we go and run the 10 km Sun Run, when we finish that race, we’ll be surrounded by around 50,000 other runners. Of that 50,000, maybe 5,000 will be students, us included.  We’ll be sharing the experience with a great multitude. In my eyes, that would diminish our efforts. We wouldn’t stand out; we’d be one of many. Sure, we did a great thing, an achievement that should be met with pride but for me that wouldn’t be enough for my kids. They needed to do something so incredible that the very fact that they accomplished their goal, the world would have to take notice. Maurcio and I decided to run the Seattle Marathon – all 42.2 km’s. When Mauricio crossed the finish line, instead of 5000 other students sharing his experience, he would be standing alone with the spotlight only on him. 

Once the goal was set, we went about getting prepared. Our normal 10 km runs needed some augmenting so we decided to periodically run the 18 km’s to Deep Cove in North Vancouver. It was perfect for what we needed – my Dad could drive us back; the Tim Horton’s on Dollarton would give us a bit of a treat and the hills would prepare us for the latter stages of the marathon, which is quite hilly. He never questioned the training regimen. Two months later, we drove down to Seattle, stayed in a dodgy hotel that smelled of cat urine (we still stay there) with my wife, watched Yao Ming beat the Supersonics and then got up and did something that nobody would have thought probable – an alternative kid from the Downtown Eastside, slipped on his And One basketball sneakers (we didn’t have the funds to buy running shoes) and ran the whole marathon in 4 hours and 18 minutes. He never complained. He never stopped. He just ran. He was 14 years old. The next oldest was 17. He didn’t have to share the spotlight with 5,000. He was the only one. I knew it was the right decision.

Kids that value fitness do so because someone has provided that example.

As the Streetfront kids jog through depressed and tough neighbourhoods, they don’t see other joggers - they see sadness and pain. I believe physical fitness is generally a luxury. Those that have the means find the time and summon the energy to stay fit. They see the value and make the effort. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that for most of our kids, finding food, housing or a safe environment trumps any thought of getting physically fit. Kids that value fitness do so because someone has provided that example. My kids don’t have that in their lives but Streetfront could be that role model. As the years passed and more and more kids started to buy into the marathon program, this became painfully clear. One year, I can’t remember which one, we ran the Vancouver Marathon as we have for the past 10 years. When the race was over and I crossed the finish line with our last student, I saw my Dad up on the overpass taking photos. He was taking photos of me but primarily he was taking photos of my students. He was so excited to see those kids do such an amazing thing. He had met many of them when he drove us back from our Deep Cove runs. That was a pretty good year for us – I think we had 7 kids run the full marathon and 3 run the half. We were all celebrating and excited about our accomplishments. The sad thing was, not one parent or family member showed up to watch their kid cross the finish line. We had 10 kids do something that no other kid in Vancouver, BC maybe even Canada, did that day, and nobody bothered to come and share the experience with their kids, except for my Dad. At that point, I fully realized how important this part of my job was. From that day, I made it my goal to get as many kids as possible to cross finish lines that lie before them. I understood that social inertia could work on my side. If I fostered this correctly, I could make this elite cabal of kids, the true leaders of my school. Their influence and social standing would draw others. I didn’t care what the motivation was, as long as it got kids to commit. I told these brave kids that your motivation is to do something every day that most won’t or can’t do. When you do a 10 km training run, try to think how many other high school kids have done what you just did. Be proud of that. Be special. A motivational phrase I use all the time is, “We run because we can.” I love its simplicity and its earnestness. We choose to do this – we are not forced or coerced to – we choose it because we know it will help us. We run because each step that we don’t want to take, but we do anyway, instills a mental toughness that will see us through the challenges that lay before us. This mental toughness will get us out of bed when we should. This mental toughness will give us the courage to tackle the difficult things in life, not to run and hide.

I often tell my students that the memories you have of your marathons may not mean that much to you as a teenager but wait, there will come a time when those memories will lift your spirits and make you proud once again.

I keep having this scene play over in my head of one of my students, now 45 years old, riding a bus downtown. He’s behind two women dressed in the latest high tech fitness gear. They are talking anxiously about their preparation or apparent lack of preparation for the upcoming marathon: training schedules dissected, diets analyzed and physio appointments logged. Their nervous energy, palpable to all around them. My student’s life may have gone in many directions up to that point, but for that moment he’s not listening in as an outsider, rather he’s an expert. He has already lived their experience. He is part of their conversation. One Sunday afternoon, thirty years before, he laced up his sneakers, just like they will and he had the courage, just like they will, to go out and do something that will be painful and at times dreadful. But when he crossed that finish line, he was a champion that day. He did something that nobody else his age did. His medal worn like a badge of courage. That memory will not fade.

The marathon of life.

They say a marathon takes a little over 55,000 steps to complete. That’s 55,000 opportunities to quit. My students don’t stop – they don’t quit. There is too much on the line. They may bend but they will not break. They will find the resolve to endure. They will finish the race. They will be better for it. They are running for their lives.


Rackets & Runners is a proud sponsor of the StreetFront Program, providing lightly used running shoes to the program for the past 10 years. 


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