Small town, big thinking.

By Sarah Fox

Tucked into British Columbia’s abundant interior is a town built around a broad, blue river. Cocooned by billowing mountains, travel here can be tricky, but for the 7,816 people who call this mountain town home—and lucky visitors—life is equal parts splendor and serenity.

Living hours away from the nearest big city and reliable airport (locals refer to the Castlegar airport as “Cancel-gar”) doesn’t stop 22 students at Stanley Humphries Secondary School from reaching beyond their beloved mountain range when looking to make a difference. The charity efforts the students of the leadership class have taken stretch from their town to rural villages across the world in Tanzania.

Sitting at her teacher’s desk, a concentrating Caitlin Kellendonk fills out a grant application for Interact, the youth sect of the community’s Rotary club. She explains, “[For] everyone who participates in this class, being in Leadership gives [them] a chance to change the world.” The Grade 9 student is one of many who volunteers both inside and outside the school.

For the past four years, educator Tracy Kuiper has looked to WE Schools programming to help guide the Leadership class at Stanley Humphries to think beyond the town’s limits—literally speaking. An annual trip to the province’s mecca makes this learning even more tangible.

Every fall, the class travels to Vancouver for WE Day—a day in the Rogers Arena featuring celebrity performers the likes of Shawn Hook, sandwiched between an impressive list of international speakers. Last October, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon graced the stage.

For some students in the audience at WE Day, the chance to see their favourite singer or movie star is incentive enough to clock in the volunteer hours needed to earn a ticket to the event. For the Stanley Humphries Leadership class, though, WE Day isn’t a reward; it’s yet another opportunity to give back.

After a full day inside the stadium, Tracy and her students leave the venue and head straight to The Salvation Army Belkin House, a place where Vancouver’s homeless can find assistance and rehabilitation with the goal of self-sufficiency. Here, the students serve coffee and food and bring cheerfulness to members of the community.

“It was really cool to see the people’s faces when they came inside,” says Emily Ashton, a Grade 11 student known around the school for her initiative. Emily is a go-to leader for teachers at Stanley Humphries; her soft-spoken maturity is sometimes even called upon to supervise her classes. Leadership comes naturally to the student, so does compassion. Her memories of Belkin House say as much. “Having new people work there brings this fun energy. Ms. Kuiper said some of them said to her that was the nicest it’s been in a long time.”

Vancouver and all its big city surroundings leave a lasting impression on the students. This is especially true for Mawien Madof, whose generosity bloomed during the trip. The towering Grade 10 student spins a basketball playfully on top of his finger, before letting his wide grin ease to speak, “On almost every corner [in Vancouver], I saw somebody who needed some help. I would give them a couple dollars. I think it really helped.”

In 2018, the class will bring their passion for this cause home. Participating in The Coldest Night of the Year, students will walk either two, five or 10 kilometres to raise awareness around homelessness, an issue which British Columbia as a province is investing $2.5 billion in, after 2017’s affordable housing crisis.

Learning to think outside themselves presents teens with a unique distraction from the daily pressures they face, like exclusion, intimidation and competition, to name a few. A multi-grade course, Leadership is a place where—regardless of age, friendship circle or what you wear—everyone is equal. “If I’m in the hallway, a Grade 12 [student] probably wouldn’t talk to a Grade 8 [student],” Emily explains. “It doesn’t matter in here, though. We’re all the same; we’re all friends.”

To the surprise of students, who assume that Leadership is a “bird” course, the program challenges them in a way that matters: it coaxes the shy out of their shells and pushes the disengaged to care for others. For Grade 10 student Brylee Gauchier, the transformative effects of the class boils down to its students. “We have a lot of really talented people [in Leadership], who are smart and creative and hungry,” she says. “It’s a great environment.”

Radiating inclusiveness, the atmosphere here is shaped by an understanding that each student has special skills. Under the guidance of their Leadership teacher, students are invited to use these talents in ways that boosts their self-confidence and encourage further participation—motivation and collaboration among students transpires naturally. “We speak to strengths in this room—everyone has strength, everyone has ability,” says the educator of her students. “We don’t talk about what we can’t do; we talk about what we can do.”

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