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Social worker for students has become local mainstay

The suicides of two Leaside High School students in 1989 stunned the school community. When grieving staff, students and parents turned to caring professionals for comfort and guidance, Oolagen Community Services was right there to lend a hand.

Since then, the non-profit children’s mental health agency has had a presence at Leaside in the form of a social worker whose sole focus is to help students in need.

Oolagen is able to supply the service at no cost to the school or the school board because of charitable funding from the province and private donors.

“(Losing Oolagen) would mean that we have more kids falling though the cracks,” says Brian Hill, Leaside High School’s vice principal. “Losing one kid is one too many.”

Bonnie-Sue Solomon, Oolagen’s social worker at the school, hears and sees it all – from bullied teens to kids whose families are falling apart, says Caroline Sneath, the agency’s director of development.

Solomon helps students deal with their issues in quiet, one-on-one sessions or with group presentations on everything from safe sex to gay and lesbian issues, Sneath says.

“We have become a very integral, very welcomed part of the community,” she says. “Kids who normally wouldn’t or couldn’t access counselling feel very comfortable dropping in to chat with Bonnie-Sue.”

But Solomon’s resources are limited. The cost of having her at Leaside is $65,000 a year, Sneath says, 70 percent of which is covered by the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. The rest comes from donations, including from community fundraising events.

One of these community fundraisers is slated for Sept. 30, when Jawny Bakers Restaurant holds its 13th annual Bogey Tour Charity Golf Tournament at Angus Glen Golf Club.

Teeing off at 2 p.m. on the North Course, all proceeds raised are going to Oolagen to support the Leaside program, along with similar ones at West Toronto Collegiate Institute and Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute.

In the past 13 years, the tournament has raised $125,000 for local charities. This year’s goal is $7,500.

On Oct. 4, Leaside students – those Solomon helps – will return the favour and take part in Footsteps4Friends, a 5-km walk around the school’s track. Hill hopes Leaside will raise more than $10,000.

“The kids came up with that idea and we just love it,” Hill says. “They’re going to do a 5K walk – or run or crawl, whatever they want to do.”

The school’s fundraising campaign will kick off with an assembly on Sept. 20 where students will hear the inspirational story of a young mother who turned to Oolagen for help.

“She was headed for dropping out of high school,” Hill says. “She’s now in college.

“She’s a young mom, and because of Oolagen she’s been able to turn her life around.”

Without fundraisers like these, Hill fears that Oolagen would be forced to cut back and his students, especially those at greatest risk, wouldn’t get the adequate amount of face time they might need with somebody like Solomon.

“They may have to rotate their social workers, so we may only see her once a week or twice a week,” he says. “Or maybe not at all.”

Town Crier
Edition: Midtown
September, 2007
Page: 5
Byline: Philip Alves