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If I had $10,000...

Whistler students dish on how to build a bright future



Warning: This article has a pretty obvious theme song that can dig in like an earworm fast—the Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had $1,000,000," of course.

Now that that's planted in your head, you can hum along while we take a peek at what young people at Whistler would do if someone suddenly plunked a cheque into their hands, not for a million dollars, but something a little more realistic, say, $10,000.

The point is to give young ones in these challenging times a leg up—albeit a hypothetical one—as they start out in life.

The entire exercise was inspired by a proposal in Britain that, in order to bridge the generational income gap, all young people be given £10,000 when they turn 25, provided they spend the money on practical things like a home or education.

For this exercise, the only string attached was that our young people had to spend their money on a project related to food, one of the three basics for any good life, namely food, clothing and shelter.

What's remarkable, in the end, is how they express that goodness.

For the first time since the Second World War, young people in Canada and beyond may not enjoy the kind of lifestyle their parents had.

Inflation. Stagnant minimum wages not keeping pace with the increasing cost of living. Rising tuition fees. More technology in the workplace and the off-shoring of jobs that have traditionally been good "bridge jobs" for young people finishing high school or university. These factors, and more, are coalescing to create less than optimal circumstances for young people as they head off into their futures.

In Britain, to bridge the growing generation gap in income, the Resolution Foundation, a non-partisan think tank aimed at improving living standards of low- to middle-income Britons, recently proposed that a "citizen's inheritance" of £10,000 be given to everyone when they turn 25 to help redistribute wealth to young people. Some restrictions would apply: Recipients would have to spend the money on housing, education, a pension or starting a business.

According to a May article in The Guardian, the foundation found that "the disposable income of 30-year-olds today was no higher than that of the generation before them, despite the economy growing 14 per cent in the last 15 years."

The proposal is a twist on the idea of a universal basic income, which is gaining traction worldwide, including Canada, as a way of bridging income inequality. For instance, a progressive basic income project is underway in Kenya that sees about US$22.50 arriving via participants' cell phones courtesy of the U.S.-based charity GiveDirectly, which is studying the effects of handing people lumps of cash with no strings attached. The phones will ding with the automatic deposit every month for 12 years, making the trial the longest and largest ever done.

Whether they realize it or not, young people in Whistler face all sorts of financial gaps, some of them due to global realities, some of them local factors.

"The obvious one is the cost of living in Whistler, and I don't actually think this is Whistler-specific," says Carol Coffey, executive director of the Community Foundation of Whistler.

"The cost of living has gone up everywhere, so you could probably say the same for Squamish or Vancouver. But I think if I was a young adult right now, I would feel that living at Whistler would be unattainable.

"The idea of homeownership is a pipe dream."

Case in point: When Shelley Quinn arrived in Whistler 23 years ago, she was able to buy a home within a year and a half through the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA). Now the waitlist for WHA housing is years long, and the cost of living is skyrocketing. Quinn, who managed a language school and career college at Whistler for years, is now a director of the Community Foundation of Whistler. Her goal at the foundation, much like this hypothetical exercise, is to give more agency to young people and hear what they have to say.

"I think it's important as we (at the foundation) develop funding and gifts of money for youth that we have them provide input into what their needs are and how they think they could use this money," she says. "I think it's very important that they have a voice ... to make sure that they're going to be able to use what we give them in a productive way for their lives."

We also know that young people often start out in minimum-wage jobs, especially in a resort like Whistler, which depends heavily on the service industry. According to a 2015 Statistics Canada survey, the minimum wage rate in Canada, after adjusting for inflation, peaked at just over $11 an hour in 1976—one year after Whistler was incorporated.

There's less good news when it comes to service job wages. In 2016, on average, the lowest hourly full-time wages nationwide were for bartenders ($11.50/hour); food and beverage servers ($11.85/hour); and restaurant hosts or hostesses ($12.85/hour).

Even Jacinda Schunselaar, one of Nicole Young's students last term at Spring Creek Community School, is already concerned she won't be as well off as her parents—and she's only 13. She discusses these concerns with family and friends, some of whom are also worried about their future. (See "Fresh Sprouts" sidebar for Jacinda's ideas on how she'd spend her $10,000.)

"I think definitely it will be harder for me with money and all that," she says. "Taxes are going up and it's harder for people to get a job these days. Or even when I'm older, I think it will be harder because now we have all this advanced technology so it's hard to get a job with that if you don't understand it."

In addition, young people can't necessarily count on their parents to bail them out. For instance, in 2016, Canadian couples with children had a median after-tax income of $94,500, up 5.6 per cent from 2012. Looks good on paper, but in the same period the consumer price index went up 5.5 per cent, leaving families barely treading water.

Last year, parents working full-time made up 14 per cent of those using Whistler's food bank, while the number of young adults (people in their twenties) comprised 40 per cent of users.

In the face of all this, what struck me during this experiment is how the young people I spoke with decided to spend their money. More often than not, it was on something that paid it forward, benefitting somebody other than themselves.

Instead of beating yourself up...

If somebody handed Jaden Legate a cheque today for $10,000 to spend any way he wanted on food, he's already got a plan. Pretty impressive, given he's only 15.

First, though, I wondered if Jaden was concerned about his financial prospects.

"I guess the thought has crossed my mind," says Jaden, who lives in Emerald Estates with his dad, Stephen Legate, and his mom, Monika Rempel, an emergency doctor at Whistler Health Care Centre. "But I think instead of beating ourselves up, if we want to not live a lifestyle that's minimum-wage and not as good as our parents lived when they were younger, then you just have to work harder and be creative and find a job that you're passionate about, and you can earn more money."

Right now, Jaden's excited by the idea of a career in business or entrepreneurship, so the idea of spending $10,000 triggered lots of ideas, from buying a farm with a friend to supporting an aquaponics project for people in need, where aquaculture is combined with hydroponics to produce food. However, Jaden already has a plan for a new, healthier energy drink in the works, so he landed on an investment strategy after doing some research.

"I even looked up some UN statistics, and by 2050 the world will have another 2.1 billion people and, of course, we'll have to feed them somehow. So certain consumer staples, such as food and soap—that kind of stuff—will always be needed even if there's a recession," he says.

"From a business standpoint ... you could invest in publically traded agricultural stocks, basically, as a way to make money on the money you've just been given." Jaden figures if he invested his $10,000 wisely, eventually he'd have $12,000 to $13,000 to invest in a business, like his new, healthy energy drink, plus he'd have more money to give to charities that spark his interest.

Out-priced but not done out

Irene Makelke-Way has taught more than one generation of kids at Myrtle Philip Community School, Whistler's first school. After teaching there for 30 years, she sees real challenges for Whistler's young people, challenges that have grown over the years, especially for those wanting to live where they grew up. Even if they return to Whistler after their post-secondary education, it's often tough for young people to get good-paying jobs in their field and buy a home.

"It's a sad thing," she says, "but now for the kids graduating, there's no way unless they have a big helping hand from parents, or whoever, for them to be able to buy anything here—they're just out-priced." As a result, many leave, hollowing out the community.

But Irene's 15-year-old daughter, Jordane, is undaunted. She's aware that some people at Whistler, even students, need a helping hand sometimes, but she also thinks that most of her friends are more stressed out about the career or work they want to pursue. Still, she feels confident about her future.

"I'm pretty good because I think I'm a keener, so I try my best," says Jordane, who works at the Brew Creek Centre, a job she'll keep part-time when she's back at school. "Right now, I have a job and I like it and I work hard, so I'm not too worried."

As for spending $10,000 on food, Jordane would start a small vegetable farm with a couple of animals. "Then, with my harvest, I'd prepare food dishes and send some of it to Downtown Vancouver, where lots of people are homeless and living on the streets," she says.

With the rest, she's inspired by Creekbread, a popular Creekside pizzeria where a portion of all sales is donated to a local non-profit organization every Tuesday. Jordane would do something similar—hold dinners to support local charities. Any fruits or veggies left over (there would be lots), she would set up a stand and sell some or just give them away.

Parents vs. kids in the worry zone

When it comes to young people, Sylvie Pare is like a lot of parents in Whistler. "I think it's the parents that are worried about their futures, because we over-protect our kids and we want so much for them," she says. Raised in Montreal by a single mom, Pare taught at several Whistler schools and now has three children of her own.

"We have experience, and we don't want them to struggle," she adds.

Her eldest daughter, Jen Lafreniere, who's starting Grade 12 this year, sees things much like Jordane and Jaden. "There's a lot of pressure on youth right now, especially at my age, to go to university and find a career you like. I think that's more stressful than financial things," she says.

Still, the $10,000 idea is fun to engage in, so the first thing Jen would do is put a small amount aside to help pay for healthier food choices at university. The rest would go to a project to help people grow their own veggies in community gardens or, "like they do in Quebec," provide breakfasts for kids who can't afford it.

"I would start a program like that in Vancouver, which is often thought of as a very, quote, unquote, 'rich city.' But there are a lot of people there who need extra help, and $10,000 can go a long way!" she says.

Jen's sister, Kaila,14, isn't too worried about her future, so she'd use all her money for others. First, she'd give 40 per cent to the local food bank in Squamish or Whistler.

"I know lots of families who don't have money to afford food all the time," she says.

With the rest, she'd go somewhere in the developing world and help hungry kids. Her inspiration: the movie Soul Surfer, which is based on the life of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer who, after losing her arm in a shark attack, travels to Thailand and finds kids struggling in the aftermath of a devastating 2004 tsunami. "She sees that her problem really isn't that big and wants to help all these kids," says Kaila.

Fresh sprouts: $10,000 worth of young ideas

Food—growing it, eating it, celebrating it, understanding where it comes from—has been an important part of Nicole Young's life as well as her lessons at Spring Creek Community School, where she teaches Grades 5 to 7. So it made sense that Young was willing to work with me on this project last term to see what her students would do if someone handed them $10,000 to spend on food projects.

Food and sustainability are important to the whole school, which has several gardens and garden boxes filled with veggies and flowers the students plant each spring. In September, teachers and students harvest the food they planted and prepare a Harvest Festival dinner shared by parents, teachers and students.

As for Young's personal connection to food and where it comes from, she had her eyes first opened as a youngster in Prince George, where the growing season is extremely short.

"When I was growing up, the only thing that we grew regularly was we sprouted sprouts in jars on the windowsill," she says. "We were pretty much vegetarian when I was young, and that was the beginning point of, 'Oh, so this is how you grow something.'" From there it was a short hop to tree planting, gardening and, these days, foraging with her family.

When it came time to develop a bridging tool to build community in her classrooms, food was the natural choice.

"With such a diverse group of learners in my class, it was important to find a universal landing point that we could all enjoy, discuss and come to a personal and individual perspective on. Food was it," she says.

Young has taught her students all about food in the Americas, with an emphasis on B.C., plus she's used themed potlucks to celebrate diversity and nourishment, and to be mindful of the fact that some students in the local school district may not always be properly nourished.

As for working with her students to learn how they would spend $10,000 on food, it was a learning opportunity all around. The initial concept developed into considering food supply, food creation and food sustainability, too.

"I think it was a lesson in critical thinking for the kids," says Young. "It started like when you throw a pebble into the water, then the next ripple is the next layer of thinking, then the next layer and the next, so the more we sat with it and the more I returned to the question, the more in-depth the answers became."

In the end, the takeaway for her students, whose responses are below, was also pretty awesome.

"I think what they got out of it is that food is universal," she says. "It's all about sharing. Even if they had a food truck or whatever, like Asher (Price) and his ice cream truck, he wants to make a small profit because he wants to buy more ingredients, but he doesn't care too much about the profit. He just wants to share ice cream with people."

The project became about "wanting to share the products with people who aren't as well-nourished in our community, so it's about having the food and then sharing it with as many people as possible."

Where does that come from?

"I think it's a pretty honest feeling," Young notes. "I mean, no one wants to eat alone."

If I HAD $10,000 TO SPEND ON FOOD...

These students were part of Nicole Young's class of grades 5, 6 and 7 last term at Spring Creek Community School.

"With my $10,000 I would buy a delivery truck that's connected to a locally owned farm. I would use the produce and also the eggs and meat from the farm and distribute these fresh items to people or families in need in Whistler, B.C., Alberta and Quebec. I'm still thinking about what to name the delivery truck."
Kenta Tanaka, 13

"With my $10,000 I would convert a concrete mixer truck into an ice cream truck. In it, I'd make ice cream using cream, sugar, salt, fresh fruit and, of course, flavours like vanilla, chocolate and caramel. I would probably make it a bit softer serve so that I could just open a valve in the side of the truck and it could just flow out. I would need a little bit of profit, but not too much, to buy the ingredients and stuff, so I would charge just a little bit of money because people won't buy super-expensive ice cream, and ice cream, in my opinion, is better if it's cheaper."
Asher Price, 11

"With my $10,000 I'd like to buy a Volkswagen camper van and convert it into a kitchen and food truck. I'd drive to different spots all around the world, probably selling breakfast because I really like breakfast—it's the most important meal of the day. I would start in Whistler then travel to all the different resort towns in North America because I could probably charge the people there more. I'd also go to Adelaide, Australia, because that's where I'm from."
Jacinda Schunselaar, 13

"With my $10,000 I'd have a Vegas-style, all-you-can-eat buffet, with Filipino food, like whole roasted pig, pancit (a rice noodle dish), adobo, sinigang (a sour soup made with tamarind), and ube halaya (a dessert made from purple yams). I would invite my mom. And I'd invite my grandma, my friends, and aunties and cousins to all come over from the Philippines to share the buffet because they've never been here before and I think they would enjoy it."
Christian Olalia, 13

"I plan to combine my $10,000 with two other guys and start a farm in Alaska. The land is cheaper there, and we decided it would be easier to work together because we'd have more money combined. We'll have bees, iceberg lettuce, chickens and garlic, and a small house to live in with a basement to store food in over the winter or in case there's an apocalypse (zombie or nuclear). The greenhouse will provide shelter for the veggies to grow over winter, and the garlic is to keep vampires away from our chickens. We also bought electric fencing to keep out zombies, in case of a zombie apocalypse."
Ben Emde, 10

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who thinks young people should have a much bigger hand in running the world.