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Making an Impact

From Toronto to the Amazon, Ontario Certified Teachers are making a difference in their own communities and abroad.

By Wendy Glauser
Photos: Matthew Liteplo, Eugenia Revelas Nicoletti, OCT; Jason Panda, OCT; and Renée MacDonald, OCT.

Photo of Steven Whitaker, Ontario Certified Teacher, seated in a school gymnasium.
Steven Whitaker, OCT

Whether they’re volunteering alongside students to discover new species in the Amazon or giving low-income children the opportunity to learn from national-level sports coaches, Ontario educators are making an impact outside of the classroom through volunteering.

Here we profile four teachers who are finding ways to exemplify the College’s ethical standards of care, respect, trust and integrity by contributing their talents, passion and time to international and local communities. Read on, and get inspired.

Using sports to engage

After teaching for more than two decades, Steven Whitaker, OCT, was growing frustrated with a common pattern he saw among kids in Grades 4 and 5. Children who had always done well and showed determination began to disengage in the classroom. Some stopped turning in homework, and he noticed lacklustre efforts on in-class assignments. Meanwhile, as a phys-ed teacher, he noticed that “students’ fitness levels seemed to be falling as well.”

That’s when he came up with the idea of the Sports, Wellness and Achievement Network (SWAN), a school-based organization to provide sport and wellness opportunities in the underserved North Toronto community of Lawrence Heights. With a network of five area schools and over 30 sports organizations, SWAN has hosted one-day festivals in sports such as soccer, flag rugby and baseball, as well as introductory series in hockey, tennis, track and field, distance running and basketball.

By getting kids excited about physical activity again, Whitaker, who teaches at Baycrest Public School, hopes he can get them focused on school work again too. “The healthier you are, the better you’re going to do in all areas of life,” he says.

Whitaker says most of the students he sees engage very little in conventional extracurricular school sports. The seasons are short and the games are competitive and generally require the students to have had prior exposure to the sport in order to do well. That’s why SWAN’s free programming teaches the fundamentals of the sports in a fun and engaging way. Whitaker has looped in professional coaches from a variety of local and provincial sport organizations to enhance the quality of the experience for the children.

In addition, Whitaker explicitly links athletic and academic success in SWAN’s programming. In the Basketball Beginnings program at Baycrest, teachers stick around to help students with their homework in the hour before practice, for example. And coaches help out as well to give students more one-on-one support. “It works as a bit of a motivator,” Whitaker explains.

Now, Whitaker is focused on expanding programming well into the middle and high school years by involving kids in sport leadership in Lawrence Heights. SWAN is connecting middle and high school volunteers with free training and national coaching certification opportunities, to build their resumés, leadership skills and confidence. Recently, Whitaker brought a group of K–5 Baycrest students out to a track practice at a local high school. The coach told him it was the best turnout he’d had all year. “All the kids wanted to come out and help the little ones,” he says.

Photo of a conservation biology trip to the Amazon and the chalk mural project in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.
A conservation biology trip to the Amazon and the chalk mural project in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

Expanding world views

When a group of high school students and university students travelled in February 2019 to volunteer in the Dominican Republic, the contrasts could be overwhelming. The students and teachers dined on fried plantain, richly spiced chicken and fish, and traditional Dominican rice and beans. Meanwhile, Sister Maude at the church compound they stayed at explained some of the kids from the neighbourhood school only consumed bread and a powdered nutrient shake until dinner.

“We felt guilty,” recalls Renée MacDonald, OCT, a teacher who took 13 students on the trip, including her daughter. She was paired up with Patrice Forgues, OCT, her colleague at the École secondaire catholique de Hearst, a community north of Timmins, Ont. “The sister told us, ‘You’re not used to not eating. If you don’t eat, you’re no help to anyone here.’”

The importance of taking care of oneself to help others was one of many lessons learned on the trip. MacDonald sees the way the lessons have changed the students, most especially her daughter. “Kids are not wasting food as much as they used to, and the value of money is greater [to them now] than it was before,” she says.

More than anything, however, the trip helped the students grow and gain new skills. The students were split into two groups and would spend the day either at a “batey” — the name for a community of sugar cane workers — or making care packages, including bags of flour, rice, beans, sugar, oil, sardines, matches, salt and cookies. When at the batey, students took turns asking questions about each family’s needs. “They learned how to navigate the language barrier and how to get over their insecurities,” says MacDonald, who said she especially noticed the confidence boost in her own shy daughter. While half the group interviewed community members, the other half led games and activities for the kids.

The experience expanded their world view. “They have a great appreciation for the easy camaraderie that they felt with the Dominicans,” says MacDonald, who adds that some of the students exchanged contact information with some of the orphaned children who lived on the compound. And it opened their eyes up to different possibilities. “Some students said the trip made them realize they want to work with children. Another said, ‘Maybe I could work with Doctors Without Borders.’” Since then three students from Hearst have decided to join a mission in Africa during the Christmas break this year.

Supporting global conservation

On Euginia Revelas Nicoletti’s last conservation biology volunteer trip to the Amazon and Galápagos Islands, she and her students slept in outdoor tents that were near the home of a boa constrictor (the local scientists and Sani natives assured her it never strayed from its nest). They would wake up at 6:30 a.m. to hike through the jungle. They captured, logged and released butterflies, preserved new species, and set up motion sensor videos to record animals. “It was so exciting to know that we actually had puma, jaguars and anteaters around us, but we never saw them because they’re scared of us,” says Revelas Nicoletti, OCT, a science teacher at the Holy Name of Mary College School in Mississauga, Ont. At night, they scanned murky lagoon waters with a flashlight to count the number of caiman eyes peering back.

Revelas Nicoletti volunteers with Operation Wallacea, an academic network that organizes conservation trips for students, and in the process, supports conservation research projects. She’s now completed two trips, one to the Amazon and one to Croatia, where students pulled insects out of cave crevices and went diving to count current stocks of fish species. They dove to the bottom of the ocean to count seagrass and evaluate the damage done to it by illegal fishing.

A typical contingent includes about 25 high school students, including a handful from Revelas Nicoletti’s school and from other participating schools from around the world. Throughout the day, the groups broke out into teams of five to eight students with one or two scientists in each group.

Photo of students from Hearst, Ontario at a local school and a group of volunteers in a sugar cane field in the Dominican Republic.
Students from Hearst, Ont., visit a local school and volunteer in the sugar cane fields in the Dominican Republic.

Before they go, the students are trained in counting methods and data collection, and they undergo numerous safety trainings. Then, for two weeks, they gather data alongside local and international scientists, some of whom have been spending the past year sleeping in hammocks or tents in the jungle. “We teach about proper sampling techniques in our textbooks, and what that means: days, weeks and years of meticulous work,” says Revelas Nicoletti. “It’s experiential learning, and the students get an appreciation for the dedication of these scientists and the important contributions to conservation efforts on a global level.”

The work can feel like a vital race against time. “There might be a species becoming extinct and we don’t even know it exists. We need to know what species make up a healthy ecosystem, what species exist, which are endemic to the local area, and if there are invasive species that are putting endemic ones at risk of extinction,” she explains.

Throughout her volunteer trips (she also leads students every year on a medical mission in the Dominican Republic), Revelas Nicoletti frequently reminds her students of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and discusses what needs to happen for them to be met. When her students see plastic in the ocean while sampling fish, they’re taught to pull it out “and I tell then to use reusable water bottles. It’s all of our responsibility. Water has no boundaries and without it, we have no life.”

Creating art to inspire

Jason Panda, OCT, a graphic design teacher at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate & Vocational School (KCI), wants his students to see themselves as contributing to and enriched by a larger community. “I don’t want students to be doing something because somebody told them they should, or simply for the marks. I want them to think of their actions as having real meaning and purpose.”

That’s why Panda has overseen numerous community art projects over the years, including a chalk mural project outside of Grand River Hospital and an annual (for five years) exhibit of student photography.

For the chalk drawing, KCI’s art department and students collaborate on a bright mural on the curving sidewalk in front of the hospital one week each September, in honour of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. “One group comes out and draws and the next group colours on top of their outline or works beside it until it’s finished,” Panda explains. “None of it belongs to any one, and if it rains, we start again. It’s more about the action itself.”

In previous years, hospital staff, patients and visitors have come out and picked up chalk or watched the action. Panda’s Imagine a Show project, which ran from 2012 to 2017, similarly inspired students to connect with community and see purpose in their art. Each year, Panda invited students from across the Waterloo Region District School Board to submit photos for display in a new location.

One year, students were invited into Grand River Hospital to take photos behind the scenes, which were displayed at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ont. Another year, students took photos that they felt represented their community, and they were exhibited in Kitchener’s Conestoga Mall.

In addition, Panda led photography workshops throughout the Waterloo region, and he paid for the printing costs of the photos that were displayed and the production of a book. The goal was to help students improve their photography skills and build their confidence.

“One of the hardest things is to put my work out there and to wonder if people will appreciate it and see value in it,” he says. “I think it’s important to get kids to start sharing early, and to not be afraid to share.”