From the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) to the top of Africa’s highest peak, VCH physician Dr. Rod Tukker shared his experience with vulnerable youth and the lessons they taught him about strength and resiliency. As the featured guest at the recent Vancouver Physician Staff Association (VPSA) Unique Lives in Medicine Luncheon, Dr. Tukker, a hospitalist at VGH, highlighted the Street2Peak Project, and the expedition he joined to lead 15 youth to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
A foundation for success
Conquering Kilimanjaro was the culmination of two years of planning and fundraising, 24 hours of travelling, five days of hiking and seven hours of climbing through the night to the summit of the world’s largest freestanding mountain. However, when Dr. Tukker first joined the Street2Peak Project in 2013, the idea of flying youth from the DTES half way around the world to climb a mountain seemed pretty farfetched.
“Most of these students had never been outside the Downtown Eastside.” Dr. Tukker explained to a captivated audience. “Crossing a bridge to hike the North Shore mountains was a stretch for them.”
A foundation for success
The program’s origins are rooted in the Streetfront Alternative Program at Britannia High School, an alternative educational program offered by the Vancouver School Board for students in grades eight to 10. The students in Streetfront are some of Vancouver’s most marginalized youth. They face a variety of social challenges including poverty, single parent or foster homes, mental health issues, substance use, social isolation and involvement in the youth justice system. The traditional education system has not worked for these students and so a different approach is taken to help them complete high school.
Streetfront emphasizes physical pursuits as a foundation for engagement and success and students accepted into the program must commit to a minimum amount of physical activity. This includes running as a group at least three times a week as well as participating in day trips and overnight camping adventures.
“The runs and other activities provide an opportunity to connect with the students and build rapport,” Dr. Tukker said. “As their fitness improves so does their confidence.”
When climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was initially presented, the first obstacle to overcome was financial. Undaunted, the students helped with the planning and fundraising and were amazed at the support of the broader community. Individuals and organizations with no connection to Streetfront organized a fundraising run, provided gear and donated money. The outpouring of support showed the students that the community believed in them.
In March 2015 the expedition of 15 youth ages 14-16 and nine leaders landed in Tanzania. The kids couldn’t believe they had made it to Africa. Over the next week, students and leaders would have more than their beliefs tested as they struggled with altitude sickness, overcame physical exhaustion and supported each other to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Through their experiences running marathons, the students learned how to face adversity and persevere. Drawing on this experience helped them conquer Mount Kilimanjaro,” Dr. Tukker said. “They also learned from the local guides who took care of us, inspired us and shared their culture with us.”
It’s where you’re going that counts
The Street2Peak Program is not only about showing students what they are capable of, the program also broadens their understanding of the world outside of Vancouver’s DTES. When they returned home, the students shared stories of what they learned, their struggles and their success. The experience was life-changing with participants acquiring the confidence and resiliency to move forward, inspiring other at-risk youth to do the same.
The philosophy of Street2Peak is that what matters most is where you are going rather than where you are from. The program continues to engage and support vulnerable youth in Vancouver’s DTES.