Tonight, the gymnasium at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre will fill with a cast of characters that could give any holiday movie a run for its money.
First on scene is 82-year-old B. Evelyn Florendo. For the past 36 years, Florendo has delivered holiday spirit to teens in youth custody as a result of criminal offences.
They will all file into the gym at the Burnaby facility to enjoy the kind of home-cooked meal that most people look forward to during the holidays. In this instance, however, the meal arrives courtesy of volunteers that Florendo organizes.
On average, the 122-centimetre (four-foot) tall grandmother is 67 years older than the 15-to-19-year-old teens that her heart goes out to. She says it’s very strange that she feels so close to them, but she does. In 2012, she received a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her long-time service to the centre and the youth.
She will be joined by Arch Bishop Miller from the Arch Diocese of Vancouver and well-known former politicians that Florendo says none of the kids have ever heard of, as well as the 16 to 18 long-time volunteers she calls her “beautiful friends” and the occasional local sports celebrity who delivers a short inspirational talk.
Every year, around October, the mother of four and grandmother with three grandsons begins cold calling for food donations, organizing volunteers and liaising with the staff at the centre for gift ideas and to fine-tune details. This year, she’s relying heavily on long-time volunteer, Roger Bissoondatt, chief financial officer of the Liquor Distribution Branch, to ensure the tradition continues.
It was 1982 when she worked for the B.C. Labour Relations Board. At that time, she heard about teens cutting themselves and a rash of suicides at the custody centre. Her husband, an engineer, had died just six months prior from a heart attack at just 44 years old. The heartache of her personal tragedy meant the news of these young kids seemed to mix with her own fragility at the time and heighten her heartache.
She wanted to know what she could do. “It took three weeks, but the answer came back from the director of the centre,” said Florendo. They would find her something to do. Little did she know that something would consume her life for months leading up to Christmas for the next 36 years.
Anita McDonnell, director, Burnaby Youth Custody Services-Operations, says that Florendo makes sure to speak with every single child who’s in attendance.
When Florendo thinks back, she recalls events with as many as 100 kids in attendance. This year, 24 youth are expected to sit down to a traditional holiday meal that along with turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes, includes non-traditional teen favourites such as pizza, hot dogs and pasta, as well as ice-cream from Mario’s Gelati.
“You know how teen-age boys are,” says McDonnell. “Their plates are piled high, they’ve got hollow legs and going back for seconds is par for the course. It’s nice to see kids behaving like kids and Evelyn never sits down the entire night. She tries to get the kids to dance.”
Staff sit strategically at every table and the kids are prepared ahead of time. “They rise to the occasion,” said McDonnell, referring to their behaviour.
And as the evening winds down, after the feast, the carols and the entertainment the kids have devised, they say good-bye to ‘mommy’, which is what they call Florendo. In response, she leans in close, hands them a gift and whispers quietly in their ears, “I love you,” knowing some of them may have never heard those words.
There are two provincial youth custody centres in the province, one located in Burnaby and the other in Prince George. To find out more, visit: