by Ava Anastasia
Imagine being five years-old without any toys to play games with. Your only possession is your school uniform, but you have no one to wash it for you. Another day passes without breakfast or a shower and there is no dinner to come home to. You go to school hungry, you can’t focus because you’re hungry and you fall asleep hungry. Imagine being five years-old, living in third world conditions just five kilometres from Adelaide’s CBD.
Though it seems unfathomable, this was the horrific reality of one little girl who came to school in a soaking wet uniform in the middle of winter because she had tried to hang it out to dry overnight. Disadvantaged youth mentor Ian Steel noticed her at a school breakfast program, she told him her story and was removed from her unsafe conditions. After many years of charity work, this would be the catalyst for Ian in creating Kickstart for Kids.
It’s 7am on a Friday morning and although it’s not my finest hour, it’s an important one at the Kickstart for Kids distribution centre. Ian’s in-laws, John and Mary Scales, are packing up the van to deliver a week’s supply of breakfast to 11 schools south of Adelaide.
From Gawler to Victor Harbor, Murray Bridge to Tailem Bend and as rural as Kangaroo Island, Kickstart for Kids can feed an entire school for just $1200 a year. Ian has been mentoring disadvantaged children for nine years and noticed a difference in the ability to learn when comparing kids from high and low socio-economic areas. “After doing a lot of research and speaking to a lot of people, I found out it was basically due to hunger,” Ian says. “All five year olds are the same, whether they come from Elizabeth or Burnside; they get upset when they have not eaten properly.”
With food in their stomachs, children are able to go to the classroom and learn immediately. “I’ve received letters from headmasters and people in the education department that say as soon as your Kickstart for Kids program comes to our school, the change in these children is instantaneous,” Ian says. In many instances, attendance increases to 95 per cent and lateness ceases completely.
Reading levels improve too, where an 11 year-old who reads at a six year-old level will improve to a 10 year-old’s level in a matter of months. “As soon as our program goes into a school, the kids are starting to learn and starting to get educated. They want to sit down and they want to learn, they want to go to school and that’s their future,” Ian says.
He knocked on the doors of small businesses like Baker’s Delight and Foodland to collect donations of bread, milk and cereal, loaded it in the back of his ute and set up breakfast programs before starting his day job as a builder. “It started with three programs and we’ve now grown to 100,” Ian says. “We now do 20,000 breakfasts a week and we continue to grow every week.”
There are three kinds of breakfast programs, one where Kickstart for Kids delivers the product and teachers run it for the whole school to capture the kids that really need it, another where the charity sends their volunteers out to run breakfasts for the select children who are in need, and when children arrive at school, teachers escort them to a lroom and give them breakfast or lunch. Some schools also have a big bowl of fruit in every class so the children can eat whenever they get hungry.
Kickstart for Kids is run entirely by volunteers, with 70 people divided between making 600 sandwiches a day, driving the trucks and mentoring the primary school students. “We just need more volunteers, we need more vans, we hope to double our footprint by the middle of this year,” Ian says.“I used to love it when I was out in schools every day, dealing with the kids, I’d go out and do what these guys do, deliver the food and work in the breakfast program,” Ian says. “But now, obviously, it’s grown so big, I can’t do that. I have to organise the volunteers. My passion is young children and making sure they can be the best they want to be and Kickstart for Kids is helping them achieve that.”
Kickstart for Kids has one full-time employee now, Ian’s sister-in-law, as well as an office and a couple of cars thanks to their corporate sponsors. “CMI Toyota gave us a car at Christmas time, National Pharmacies have donated $35,000 cash this year and Variety gave us a van,” Ian says. “SAFM have decided to back us this year and we’ve had a couple of week-long promos finishing off with a telethon,” he says. “The first one we raised about $90,000 in one day and just before Christmas we raised $140,000 in a week.”
Donors ranged from small children giving their 50 cents from the tooth fairy, to teenagers contributing the $400 they had saved for a Playstation. “We’re a conduit between people that have money and are willing to help out kids – they give it to us and we then convert it into food,” he says. “We buy washing machines, we supply clothes, we supply footy boots, shoes, toasters, anything to make the kids feel good about themselves.”
Giving local children a boost of self-esteem is priceless and mentoring is often the best gift to give. As some of these children don’t have a significant adult in their life, having someone visit them for an hour a week during school time is a huge contribution.
“It’s a matter of a mentor going in, forming a relationship with a child and then doing those things that parents normally do, just taking an interest in that child’s life,” Ian says. “It’s really just time, it’s probably the hardest thing for people to give, a lot of people can give money, it’s quite easy to give money, but the hardest thing for you to give is time.”
“We have a lot of individuals that sponsor a school for a year; I got an email yesterday from the people at Holden who are going to sponsor Blakeview Primary for a year,” Ian says. “A couple of months ago, an orthodontist at Elizabeth decided he wanted to sponsor three schools in Elizabeth for a year. More people are finding out that there are kids living in third world conditions only five kilometres from where they live and, they want to help.”
Some children have never seen the beach before, gone to the movies or the zoo. At Christmas time, Kickstart for Kids organised for 900 children to visit the Adelaide Zoo in a bid to make them feel special.
Many schools supported by Kickstart for Kids are surrounded by shelters for domestic violence. As a result of trauma, some children from violent homes experience bed-wetting, but can wash their clothes and shower on campus for a more comfortable school day.
With a focus on education to break the cycle of poverty in these areas, Ian believes it is important for children to feel normal in order for them to have a future. “We’re giving them power to be educated but we’re also changing their diet, we’re also affecting the health of all these young people,” Ian says. “A lot of these kids have never had fruit before, they don’t know what fruit is as they’ve always had junk food, they’ve never had yoghurt in their whole life,” he says. “They have yoghurt and they say ‘oh yum, this is like ice cream, I want some more!’”
Since Ian began his works eight years ago, he has noticed an increase in hunger due to rising bill costs for single income families, making it a challenge to put food on the table. “The second reason is what we talked about before, violence in the home,” he says. “A parent might have a mental illness, they might be drug addicted, another reason is the parents might be in jail and a grandma or a relative is looking after the kids.”
During the telethon, a father rang in crying because he could no longer afford to feed his children and was suffering terrible guilt. “Our program went into his school area and he could notice a difference in his children straight away,” Ian says. “Because we were feeding his kids, his kids could then go and learn and do homework and he was sobbing on the phone to me because he was just saying ‘thank you, you’ve changed my family and my kids. I feel so good about it now but I feel so guilty that you’re doing it for me and I can’t.’”
Kickstart for Kids has become a part of daily life for some children. Without government red tape, the only requirement for help is hunger. If a school calls in to say they need help, Kickstart for Kids will be there the next day, whether it’s to feed two or 200 children.
Ian tells me of a six year-old boy in the northern suburbs who walks his three and four year-old brother and sister two kilometres to their local primary school every day. “He sits them down, gets them breakfast and when they finish, he takes them back home and he goes back to school and he’s six,” Ian says. “A lot of the kids are more mature for their age because they have to be.” Knowing Kickstart for Kids has such a great impact on the lives of disadvantaged children, it’s hard to resist getting involved.
It’s 8am now and Ian drives off in his ute to his day job to support his own family. After work he will come home and do more for his charity, estimating a total of 50 hours a week unpaid. If you think you can spare just one hour, the impact on a primary school student will be life-changing.
If you are time-poor, Kickstart for Kids accepts donations on their website www.kickstartforkids.com.au, or via www.gofundraise.com.au. Though food is not accepted, new washing machines, toasters and fridges will be used in schools or given to underprivileged families. Any spare change is enough to make a difference and fill at least one child’s empty stomach.