Three mornings a week, a group of middle school students takes to the streets for training runs through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The inner-city route winds past all manner of complex societal issues on display—poverty, homelessness, substance use, mental illness, crime. Politicians have called the area hell on earth.
But for the 22 kids at Streetfront, an alternative education program, this neighbourhood is home. It’s where they live and go to school and where, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 10:45 a.m., they slip on donated running shoes and develop confidence, commitment and perseverance step by step.
“Running is a perfect vehicle for life,” says Trevor Stokes, Streetfront’s teacher and department head. “Maybe you can only run 1 kilometre when you start, but if you keep at it, you’ll get to 4 kilometres, 7 kilometres, 12 kilometres, 15 kilometres.
Launched in 1977, Streetfront offers a school program for grades eight to 10 that incorporates physical activity into 40 per cent of the day. It caters to 10- to 13-year-olds who’ve had disruption to their education. Some haven’t been attending school; many are facing social, emotional and behavioural issues.
“Some programs use running as punishment,” Stokes explains. “’You’ve done something wrong; go out and run some laps.’ It couldn’t be more opposite to us. It’s therapy.”
For 20 years, Streetfront has had the same three staff—Stokes along with Barry Skillin the teacher support, and Gord Howey, a school counsellor, who retired in January 2023. The three have participated in every training run alongside the kids.
The students, many of whom are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), log 300 to 500 kilometres a year. Over and above that mileage, they enter marathons, half-marathons, and 10 kms, thanks to support from the community, which allows Streetfront to cover costs for students.
In May, Streetfront will have 40 people running the Vancouver Marathon and 20 running the half-marathon. The school purchases extra entries for alumni who return to run under the Streetfront banner. Often, these alumni have not been actively training, but they are drawn to the practice that helped them during their early teen years.
“They’ll lace up those sneakers, and they’ll run 32, and they’ll die on the course before they give up,” Stokes says. “Five hours later, they’ll be crossing the finish line like the freaking champions they are.”
There are alumni with good-news stories—for example, one teaches in the Vancouver school district, another has run 26 marathons and 35 half-marathons—and there are others who face the challenges prevalent in the Downtown Eastside: poverty, addiction, trauma.
Stokes knows Streetfront can’t transform every aspect of the students’ lives, but he hopes the experience gives them the tools and vision to put in effort when they need to.
On average, it’s 55,000 strides to finish a marathon, he explains. “I always tell the kids, that’s 55,000 opportunities to quit. Imagine how much affirmation you get when you don’t quit 55,000 times?”
The alumni know they are welcome to visit Streetfront for an infusion of care and support anytime. And, they can join a run to remind them of their capacity to endure, to weather storms, to believe in themselves.
Three years ago, a struggling alumnus ran the Vancouver Marathon out of the blue. He said he wanted his young daughter to see him cross the finish line, and she did.
“It makes me so f***ing proud,” Stokes says. “That’s the story of Streetfront.”
Photography by Christopher Morris
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