Sebastian White says he’s determined to secure his high school diploma.

Finishing school in spite of the system

For more than five years, the Chilliwack school district has consistently lagged behind the provincial average in graduating students.

For more than five years, the Chilliwack school district has consistently lagged behind the provincial average in graduating students.

In the 2009/10 school year, just 69 per cent of students made it to graduation – 11 per cent below the provincial average.

The Chilliwack Progress is putting faces to those numbers. This is part three of a four-part series.

***

While most boys grow up playing soccer and video games, Sebastian White grew up on the streets, stealing cars and selling drugs to survive.

“I was ripped off,” he says of his childhood.

Sebastian, who was classified a gifted student by the Surrey school district early on, left home when he was 13. Without going into details, he says he couldn’t live there anymore.

But no matter how hard he pleaded for help, the Ministry of Children and Family Development would not intervene. Sebastian’s mom assured social workers that their home was safe and her son was more than welcome to return.

“Going home was not an option,” says Sebastian, 17, now in Grade 11 at Sardis secondary.

Instead, he couch surfed, slept on benches, and sometimes didn’t sleep at all. He tried to continue his schooling, but the street lifestyle didn’t make it easy. He felt like a “scrubby” outcast at school, doing drugs, stealing, getting into fights, and because he went days without sleeping, he often crashed in class.

“They didn’t like that. They kicked me out because I was a problem, doing drugs, fighting, bad things. It was a lifestyle. I couldn’t see the big picture.”

Sebastian was banned from all schools in the Surrey school district, and was told he’d be arrested if he stepped foot on school property.

The streets were the only place he felt welcomed.

According to Chilliwack Youth Services, roughly 200 youth in Chilliwack have been identified as functionally homeless. They’re couch surfing, temporarily living with friends, residing in homes that are not safe. In some cases, they’re being sexually exploited.

For most, it stems from a lack of stability in the home.

“The kids that have stable homes are not my clients,” says Tim Bohr, director of Youth Services. “Typically, it’s addiction or abuse or neglect or something else happening in the home that’s setting these kids up for risk.”

All through elementary school, Sebastian was recognized as an academic kid. He was encouraged to take advanced math in Grade 4, he excelled through French Immersion in Grade 6. His teachers repeatedly told him he was smart. When his life spiralled downwards, he held onto that knowledge for survival.

“That was the only thing I knew about me that was valuable.”

But at 15, when he wanted to go back to school, he found only walls.

In a meeting with a school district representative, a social worker, a mental health counsellor and other officials, Sebastian was told he couldn’t go back to school – he was bad; he’d have to find something else to do.

“I felt like the lowest of the low, worthless, a zero. But I figured I had nothing to lose and I’d just keep banging my head against the wall and maybe I’d get back into school.”

It worked.

He was admitted into an alternate program on a trial basis. After a semester, he was allowed to take one class a day in the regular school stream, which led to a full course load. Within a year and a half, he was in the gifted program.

But he still didn’t have a steady place to live.

Last summer, he moved in with a friend’s family in Chilliwack, and started Grade 11 at Sardis secondary in September. After just a few months though, he wanted his independence.

“I don’t feel comfortable with living in other people’s houses because it’s not my house.”

Other teenagers in similar situations have been supported through a youth agreement with the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The government financially supports teens to live on their own by paying for their rent, utilities, school expenses and providing a monthly allowance. For five years, Sebastian fought for a youth agreement, but was denied.

Eligibility rules state the teen must be between the ages of 16 to 18; not have a parent or guardian willing to take responsibility for them; or cannot return home for reasons of safety.

In February, Sebastian was on the verge of leaving school once more. He needed money to survive, and if he couldn’t find employment that would work around his school hours, he’d have to drop out.

Many street kids like Sebastian are often not protected by the system, says Stacey Moore, coordinator of the REAL program with Chilliwack Youth Services.

Because verbal and emotional abuse is difficult to prove, the ministry doesn’t apprehend youth unless they are being physically abused.

“Their mandate is to keep families together, but unfortunately many of the youth we work with are in homes where mom and dad are drinking or doing drugs, where they’re being emotionally and verbally abused, are fighting all the time. But because it’s not physical abuse, they don’t apprehend,” says Moore.

At the 11th hour, in a fit of desperation, Sebastian threatened to publicly embarrass his mom, to tell authorities she was unfit if she didn’t relent. She finally conceded.

Sebastian was approved for a youth agreement. He is now living independently; the ministry is paying for his rent and utilities, and gives him $335 a month for groceries and other amenities.

“Because I wasn’t in the system [foster care] I had to fight for this. It’s just the way the system works. Their job is to turn everyone away that they can until they absolutely have to because they can’t afford it. It came down to politics.

“Kids shouldn’t be dealing with this sort of stuff, especially when they’re young. Back when I was 13, somebody should have come and done something, but they didn’t.”

If all goes well, Sebastian will graduate on time next June.

“The thing is, I’m lucky. I’m a really strong person, I’m charismatic, intelligent, and it was easier for me, even when I was in a position where I felt powerless, I managed to pull it off somehow by just sticking with it I guess. But a lot of people aren’t and they’d give up.

“I know what it’s like. I felt like I was not entitled to this [my education] and that should not be the policy. You do have a right to education, if I’m not mistaken, and they should be doing everything in their power to give you a second, third, 150 chances, because what are you without an education?”

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