Waltham man helps provide thousands of meals during pandemic

STEPHEN RICCIO
Discovering a career path can be difficult in high school, as there are always factors pulling someone in different directions.
For Jason Rochon, it wasn’t difficult. Growing up in the Pontiac and attending St. Alphonsus High School in Chapeau, there were certain people who stuck out as role models.
“I saw how hard teachers work and people that worked in education who were really trying,” Rochon said. “I just really wanted to do that as well. I had a pretty good childhood and I just wanted to make sure kids get the opportunity I had.”
At that point in time, he saw himself as a future social worker or an addictions counselor. Now, as an educational assistant (EA) working with third and fourth graders at Joamie Ilinniarvik School in Iqaluit, the 43 year-old from Waltham has stayed true to his altruistic nature.
Having developed an appreciation for programs for students while in school, Rochon had already been committing his time to run the school breakfast program before COVID-19 caused school to close in March.
On the last day before everyone got sent home, he filled up the food bank shelves to the maximum as students took over 80 bags of groceries home with them. After witnessing such a demand, Rochon could not stand to see the gap in services go unaddressed.
“So I was trying to fill that [gap] by starting a citywide breakfast program and we couldn’t really use the schools because of COVID,” he said. “In March, it was still a little bit dark and because of the daylight here, it was a little darker and it was still like minus 40 so we were outside in the parking lot sometimes with 50 km per hour winds, 70 km per hour winds, and trying to serve breakfast. We just thought if we did it in a brown paper bag, and put five breakfast items in there: we had milk, cereal, fruit, cheese, yogurt and the kids come every day and grab a bag and we would get the bags ready in a warehouse, a secured space.”
From working 14 hour days during the early days and serving at least 200 breakfasts a day until June 26, Rochon was able to utilize his connections around the region to ensure that students who might have gone without had something to take advantage of.
“We always gave a more elaborate breakfast program since I started running it,” Rochon said. “Just because I have donors that help me out. I don’t want to just give a few things on the breakfast tray, I like for the kids to have a larger sample of things to grab.”
Rochon mentioned that grocery items such as milk and bread can each cost $20 in the isolated territory, given the cost and rarity of flying groceries in.
According to Rochon, the income level is mixed in Iqaluit. Some of the children come from overcrowded homes, and they might not always get a lot of sleep. Regardless of who came to pick up a breakfast in the mornings, Rochon and his volunteers were there to help.
Given the need to limit the number of people out and about, a child would let them know how many siblings they had, Rochon would give them that many breakfast bags, and that’s how they ended up giving as much as 549 breakfasts in a single day.
“They were really happy, and I think it gave them a purpose too, because they were probably missing routine,” Rochon said. “Not being in school and not being able to see their friends with social distancing. I think it was nice for them being able to wake up and walk out and see somebody that they know from the school or wherever and just say hi and have a breakfast.”
Rochon also wanted to focus on a healthy variety, sampling different fruits, vegetables and cereals.
“Kids don’t always have access to a lot of the healthier food because of the high costs,” Rochon said, “and when you’re teaching the food groups, kids are asking ‘well what’s this?’ and they didn’t really know what a cucumber was, or some kids had never ate one.”
Giving to those in need is a big part of what gives Rochon his purpose. After graduating high school, Rochon worked as an EA at a Pembroke high school before moving to Japan to teach there. Seventeen years ago, he had just returned from Japan and was living back in the Pontiac.
While working at his parent’s old restaurant, Waltham Station, he met someone who offered him a manager position in Iqaluit. For the last 16 years, he’s filled his current EA role while wearing other hats.
Unable to visit his family in the Pontiac, as he normally would in the summer, due to COVID, Rochon is currently working with Embrace Life, a non-profit organization focused on suicide intervention.
Rochon tends not to pump his own tires when it comes to making an impact, instead focusing on the people who helped him make it happen.
“It was a lot and my volunteers gave up a lot of their time so I really appreciated that,” Rochon said.
In total, the COVID breakfast program served 19,303 meals.
Although he is currently working with Embrace Life until school is back, Rochon said he’d love to get another program up and running during the summer months.
“I was kind of wanting to do something all summer long, but I just couldn’t get any funding, so I just sent in two proposals, and I’m supposed to hear back in a couple weeks. I might do it for the whole month of August too if I can get it set up in time.”

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