A mini Olympics for change

By Chinelo Onwualu

On a cold, windy February afternoon at Columbia Elementary School in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 14-year-old Julia Fleger was helping lead 20 kindergarteners through an energetic game of charades. Her team had put a list of healthy habits, like brushing teeth and jogging, on cue cards, so the kids could act them out.

But the game wasn’t going quite as planned.

“It was mostly us picking a kid to come ‘read’ the card, but we had to whisper the action to them so that the other kids could guess, because it was kinda hard to explain it,” says Julia, laughing.

The game was part of a mini Olympics activity day organized by Julia and 24 other philanthropic eighth-graders called the Change Makers. They set up nine stations throughout the school with physical activities like basketball, yoga and an obstacle course. Each station was designed to get the kids active while teaching them about their health.

“Lots of kids don’t realize that being healthy can also be fun,” says fellow Change Maker Annabel McDowell. “They were enjoying the games, but they probably didn’t realize that at the same time they were doing good things for their bodies.”

The mini Olympics was just one of a series of health-focused fundraising activities that the Change Makers executed last year through the WE Schools program. The month before, they held a small school dance for 100 fifth and sixth graders, to get them moving and socializing. At each event they charged a small door fee (between $1 and $5) and sold items or solicited donations.

By the end of the year, they had raised $1,200, which they donated to the WE Villages Health Pillar in Kenya. The money was used to provide five Kenyan mothers with health education, and students in one Kenyan classroom with healthy lunches for a year.

The Change Makers also created a mentorship program for some of the younger kids in the school. Each of them was paired with a second-grade “buddy” to coach them in developing social skills like communication and sustained focus. For both Julia and Annabel, this was their favourite part of the program. As Julia worked with her mentee, a young girl so shy she rarely spoke in class, she found herself changing too.

“Before, I was a horrible public speaker,” she said. “In class, or in Change Makers when we were making group decisions, I might have an idea that I would want to say, but if I didn’t think it was good enough, I wouldn’t say it. But I think now I can say what I’m thinking. I’m more confident.”

For Julia, joining the Change Makers was the natural outgrowth of a lifelong interest in helping others. The eldest of three, she’s been volunteering at the care home where her mother works since she was 12.

Her hard work paid off.

On October 25, 2017, Julia and 20 of the Change Makers joined thousands of others at the Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg for WE Day Manitoba. They were thrilled to meet student activists from other schools and to hear speakers like actor George Takei. But they were most moved by former Olympic hurdler Sarah Wells, who described her journey to a life beyond sports.

“She was talking about injuries and how you can’t just give up,” says Annabel. “If you really want something, you just have to keep pushing and working for it.”

It was a lesson the students took to heart.

“I think the Change Maker program has built up pretty strong leadership skills and accountability in a lot of these students,” says middle school teacher Elora Lake, who put her own passion for social justice activism toward creating the initiative. “I have a lot of faith in my group, and I trust that when they say they’re going to get things done, they’ll get them done.”

Five tips for hosting a mini Olympics

1. Get the kids involved

Students will be more enthusiastic about taking part in the event – and getting their friends to take part – if they’re responsible for the planning and organization.

2. Ensure plenty of space

It’s easier to get kids moving if you have the room to do it. So, make sure your activity space is clear of furniture. Or, even better, if the weather allows, hold it outside.

3. Have fun

Plan activities your attendees will enjoy. Pick events that are less about serious athletics and more about having fun..

4. Keep groups small

It’s best to keep groups at any one activity station to 10 kids or less. More children can make it hard to keep everyone focused and participating.

5. Invite local talent to participate

Consider inviting local community leaders with relevant expertise to host different activity stations. For example, ask your local Little League coach to organise a tee-ball game.

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