How do you take a group of alternate school youth who see themselves as bad, stupid and unworthy, and prove to them that they are as capable as students in the mainstream school? You come up with an innovative plan, that many will call crazy, that goes against all traditional methods for dealing with these youth, and that has no proven track record from which to defend your ideas; and you take a leap of faith.
It is my mission to change people’s beliefs in alternate programs and what the students are capable of. After being the administrator of the school for almost 10 years, I have heard all of the negative stereotypes, but I know that they are not true; unless we allow them to be. My students are every bit as capable as any other students, not only academically, but in achieving life successes as well. I came in to the position with the belief that there is no such thing as problem youth, just youth with problems and if we teach them to cope, they can soar. My students have proven this repeatedly with their successes, community involvement, increase in self-esteem, and, most recently, by becoming involved in leadership and public speaking at various events, including TEDx Chilliwack. I have heard the “bad kids,” “the druggies,” and the “stupid” characterizations many times over the years, and those beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies if we let them. However, we don’t have to let them.
Like the alternate students I teach now, I did not fit into the mainstream schools. I did not graduate high school, but I returned to school as an adult and completed my B.Ed. with specializations in English and Social Studies. After I graduated, I did not pursue a career in teaching, and instead I worked in computers, hospitality, and even stand-up comedy. Those experiences taught me a lot about life and gave me some great skills to take into my teaching career.
I continued with my learning taking university and graduate level courses in women’s studies, network administration, computer programming, and counseling. Ultimately, I finished an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Royal Roads, and I am now taking graduate level courses in counselling to work toward a Registered Clinical Counsellor designation. I have also taken several shorter courses throughout my career to learn skills in management and administration such as the BCPVPA Short Course and JIBC courses.
When I did return to teaching, it was not long before I realized that I had an ability to empathize and truly understand at-risk youth. As my understanding of them grew and I was able to help them achieve successes and believe in themselves, my passion for doing the work also grew. I had been a “problem youth” myself, but I managed to move past it and use it to help others; and I realized that now I could show youth how to move beyond their own barriers and issues. This led me to the position I have now at the Agassiz Centre for Education (ACE) where I have created many innovative and successful programs, some of which have won awards.
Early after arriving at the school, I began creating relationships in the community. Creating a relationship with the Legion led to the students building relationships with the members and gradually overcoming some of the negative stereotypes of alternate students. The students began to volunteer at Legion events and the Legion allowed us use of their hall for our fundraisers and special events. With the hall having a commercial kitchen, it was the perfect opportunity to create a formal graduation. We had a hall, we had a kitchen, so now we had a graduation.
At our first graduation in 2009, I was approached by a member of the local senior peer support group. He told me that the seniors were afraid of my students and he wanted to change that. We created events where the students and seniors would have lunch together and spend the afternoon engaged in an activity. The events continue not only with our school, but the elementary students are now involved as well. Both groups have built strong bonds and it has been a positive experience for everyone involved.
Christmas Morning for Seniors
After seeing the success of the other events, I proposed to the students that we put on a Christmas morning event for seniors who would be alone. The students gather donations for gifts and wrap them; and they help in all areas of the preparation. Not all of the students are involved with the actual event, but all students are involved in the preparation. Those who can be there at Christmas arrive at 6 am to begin preparing the breakfast, with help from community volunteers. The seniors are treated to a hot breakfast buffet and each receives a gift from Santa.
ACE Burgers and SAS
In an attempt to find not only a good method for fundraising, but one that would also highlight the skills and abilities of the students and integrate the entire community, I decided to have regular barbecues. In addition to having top quality patties and toppings, I created a special sauce/marinade to add a unique flavor to the burgers. The burgers became a huge success and drew several regular customers from the community. The sauce also became popular; so much so that we started bottling and marketing the sauce locally. The students named it SAS (Sandy’s ACE Sauce). We have been voted the Favorite Burger by readers of the local paper, and both burger and SAS sales have increased.
To honor the national Intergenerational Day, we created an annual event that would feature community partners, local businesses, and anyone who wanted to participate. Our liaison from the Legion organized a wheelchair walk where the elementary students would pick the seniors up from the local seniors’ home and push them to the event, which was several blocks away. In addition to the various events, my students organize the barbecue and the wheelchair walk participants all arrive and have lunch.
Betty Urquhart Award
We won the University of the Fraser Valley’s Betty Urquhart Award for community service because of the Christmas morning event, and other work we did with seniors.
Golden Star Award
The BC Retired Teachers association gave us the Golden Star Award for our work with seniors and presented it at our annual Intergenerational Day Event.