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The kid they loved to hate made good
Vivian Smith, Special to Times Colonist
Sunday, February 20, 2005


Ray Smith, Times Colonist / (Carlye Burton) The kid they loved to hate made good

      Vivian Smith
      Special to Times Colonist

February 20, 2005

            Photo Credit: Ray Smith, Times Colonist >

Carlye Burton has come a long way since she was an obese, surly, anti-social misfit at school. After time as a Gapper, she has dropped 80 pounds, is taking legal administration courses and is an ardent supporter of the GAP/Options program. >

Teachers hate to see kids like Carlye Burton disrupt their classrooms. She came across as a surly, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed piece of work. When the Carlyes of the world skip school, the other kids don't exactly

Carlye did, though. She says she flunked Grade 8 twice and was still telling teachers to f--- off when a counsellor told her about the Girls' Alternative Program. So Carlye became a "Gapper," one of a group of girls in Victoria who do not fit into regular high school.

They may be psychologically damaged, physically or sexually abused, addicted to alcohol and/or drugs, almost always poor, or struggling with First Nations issues. The Gappers take classes with girls who are, or are about to be, teen-aged moms -- their program is called Options -- in a building on the grounds of Lansdowne middle school. But after more than 30 years, the money for GAP/Options is drying up.

"Oh man, I was really scared that first day, the girls there looked so tough," remembers Carlye, now 23. Her own toughness was an act of survival. As an extremely obese teen, she says she was depressed, teased and taunted, had no social skills and no idea that her life had any value.

"I had never had any friends," says Carlye. "But at GAP, I never felt more welcome. They made me feel so calm. That first day, they were making an apple pie in the kitchen."

The apple pie-making is not just about feeding girls who are hungry, although that is a crucial component of GAP. Cooking is one way to teach co-operation and basic life skills to teens who have nobody else to show them.

These girls eventually do the required academics at their own pace. They learn how to control their anger, how not to be doormats for guys, how to be good mothers. The Gappers also see the struggles of the "preggos" and the "moms," which apparently turns out to be a pretty good birth control method.

The teachers, counsellors and day-care workers are women whom girls like Carlye come to see as examples of female pride and productivity. One of those, counsellor Sue Hodgkinson, was a 14-year-old street kid in 1978.

"GAP saved my life," says Hodgkinson, who returned 11 years ago and now leads drug and alcohol programs, among other duties, and is available practically around the clock for the teen girls she calls "my moms."

Carlye, now 80 pounds lighter than in her Gapper years, left in 1999 after completing Grade 11. She worked for a few years and is now enrolled in legal administration courses. A closet singer, she recently worked up the courage to try out for Canadian Idol. "I didn't make it, but I am totally proud of myself for trying," says Carlye.

She's also a huge GAP booster and regularly meets other alumni and supporters to figure out ways to keep it going. The funding is complex: suffice to say that in the past, the non-profit Victoria Society for Educational Alternatives joined with School District 61 to run GAP/Options with money from the province.

Since 2002, money for the program has dwindled. This has to with downloading -- or more accurately, offloading -- and the school board's view that, while it has supported GAP, the girls it serves can do well in regular classes.

At its optimum, the GAP/Options program helped 36 students with three teachers and three counsellors. (Sometimes, even more girls were squeezed in.) Today, only 20 students -- including just four Gappers -- one teacher, and "one and a half" counsellors remain, along with day care staff.

Bottom line? The people who run GAP say they are parting ways with the school district, and intend to set it up in September elsewhere with ministry money and donations.

They have $240,000, but need $300,000 more for annual operations, plus whatever it costs to fix up a 5,000-square-foot building that can be licensed for day care.

"We're very hopeful," says Peggy Palmer, the society's executive director. "People are shocked to hear GAP is going down."

But will shock turn to cash? Defending a small, intensive, gender-based program is not easy these days, especially one whose customers are not doe-eyed charmers.

"It's a difficult program to 'get'," says Sandi Chamberlain, GAP's chairperson. These girls are the ones you don't necessarily want your daughters hanging around with. Yet they are children themselves, often the victims of a vicious culture of drug and sexual exploitation.

Their detractors accuse them of "mollycoddling" the girls, says Palmer. She shrugs, but she doesn't apologize.

"The mollycoddling works," she says.

You can accept these messed-up girls and their babies for who they are and give them a hand up, say GAP supporters, or you can step over them downtown.

Vivian Smith is a journalist, teacher and editorial consultant in Victoria.

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005