Michel Awashish and his friend Waka Hughes – affectionately known as Doctor Waka Waka – recently launched a free breakfast program for Waswanipi schoolchildren in association with the Breakfast Club of Canada.
With the help of the local band council and community volunteers the two men have finally realized their dream of offering a well-rounded meal to kids on their way to school, significantly impacting their success and behaviour in an educational environment.
After a recent opening celebration, complete with a ribbon cutting and prayer ceremony, the Breakfast Club of Waswanipi now offers a free breakfast to students and the occasional parent from 7:30 to 8:30 am Monday to Friday, not including PED days or statutory holidays.
Awashish says the Breakfast Club is similar to running a restaurant. It requires food permits, training for safety and proper food handling, hygiene protocol for volunteers as well as adherence to a menu provided by the Breakfast Club of Canada.
The simple menu is designed to give students a head start on their school day. It consists of breakfast staples like toast, English muffins, croissants, bagels with cream cheese or jam, yogurt, oatmeal, cereal and cheese.
As part of his obligations to the parent organization, Awashish keeps track of how many students eat meals each day the club is open. He records their age and their academic performance over the school year, then forwards the data to the Breakfast Club of Canada. This allows the Breakfast Club to determine the effectiveness of their program and consider future adjustments to the service.
In 2013, Hughes – then working as a teacher in Waswanipi – and Awashish recognized the needs of some families in the community and decided to do something.
“Waka Waka – as we call him – saw the situation some of the kids he was teaching were in so we started making breakfast for children on Saturdays and Sundays. We used our own money, had a lot of help and support from other community members and would usually offer some sort of activity to entertain the kids,” Awashish explained.
Once Awashish and Hughes we heard about the Breakfast Club of Canada’s program they applied to the Quebec headquarters in Boucherville for the 2014 school year. However, they did not receive the response they were hoping for right away. They were told there was a waiting list of about 500 schools across Canada.
“They told us we were at the bottom of the list because we didn’t meet certain criteria and we needed to secure financing and support from the community council and the Cree School Board,” explained Awashish. “Even though it’s a free program, we have to finance 20% of the overall cost within the community, locate a building that belongs to the School Board to host the program and find volunteers who are reliable and punctual. It was not a fast process.”
Over the next few months, Awashish was in contact with the Waswanipi Band Council, the Cree School Board and Serge Rock, a First Nations and Inuit representative for the Breakfast Club of Canada. After assuring he had the support of the community and the School Board for funding and securing the necessary permits and documentation, Waswanipi’s Breakfast Club was finally approved in December. In January, the final preparations and logistics were arranged and a space in an adult education building was allocated to Awashish and his volunteers as the location for the breakfast project.
Fast forward to March and the program is up and running, having served its first official meal on March 23.
“The Breakfast Club of Canada provided everything,” Awashish said. “And when I say everything I mean literally everything except tables and chairs; bowls, plates, utensils, equipment and all of the food we serve to the children. Deliveries come about every two weeks so everything is always fresh and ready to go.”
Awashish stressed the importance of Hughes’ role in getting the program off the ground and insisted that it’s thanks to Waka Waka that everything fell into place. “He’s the one who pushed the program,” exclaimed Awashish. “Without him this would not have started.”
Awashish also noted Hughes’ extensive experience in similar endeavours in the United States and his understanding of some families’ difficult situations in Waswanipi working as a re-adaptation officer for youth and children.
Waswanipi’s Breakfast Club can provide for up to 200 people, which represents 50% of the student population in the community. Volunteers have an incentive program that offers training days, weekend getaways and celebrity appearances based on the results achieved in their location. In short, the breakfast program is a win-win situation for everyone.
“Seeing the kids come in [March 23] was very motivating,” said Awashish. “They were happy to have a sense of belonging, a place to call their own. We encourage them to have a good day and to be good to others. We don’t just want to feed them, we also want to pass on positive messages and instil positivity in them before they go to class.”
Awashish says now that the Breakfast Club of Canada has approved Waswanipi’s initiative, the program is easily renewable every school year as long as they have their 20% funding and enough volunteers to meet the demand. He has already seen a positive impact from the program. Anyone in Eeyou Istchee interested in starting a similar project can contact him at 819 753-2575 (home) or at 514 701-2887 (cell).