It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and a group of teenagers at Bishops College have given up their lunch hour — to learn how to knit.
The 30 students are members of the St. John’s high school’s Youth Action Committee, and they meet every week under teacher advisers Yvonne Dawe and Anne Murphy to come up with ways they can contribute to local charities and environmental causes.
Last week it was The Telegram’s Warm Hearts campaign for Iris Kirby House. The students organized a penny drive at the school, and collected more than $250 in coins for the campaign.
This week, they want to learn how to knit for Knit-a-Square, an African charity that accepts donations of handknit or crocheted eight-inch squares, which it turns into blankets for AIDS orphans.
“We have a good group; a diverse group of students,” Dawe explained. “So many of them are interested in making a difference. It’s a credit to them, and their parents as well.”
The committee has grown since it was established by Murphy in 2005. Working on the basis that all students are equal (having no president or executive), group members come forward with causes they’re interested in and present them as possible initiatives for the committee to take on, with them taking the lead.
“In this way,” Dawe said, “members of the group learn valuable leadership skills, how to identify specific problems, and then work together to find solutions.”
Past activities have included charity walks and runs, drives for the Community Food Sharing Association, the Red Cross’ Help for Haiti fund and the NL AIDS Committee, and participation in VOCM’s Coats for Kids and Happy Tree campaigns.
Environmental projects have included selling reusable water bottles with the Bishops Barons mascot, and the installation of a hydration station, the first of its kind in a Newfoundland and Labrador school, where students can fill their bottles with filtered water. To date, Dawe estimates, they have diverted almost 60,000 plastic water bottles from the landfill.
The committee members have raised more than $5,000 to secure land for the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Legacy Project, and established a garden on school grounds in memory of student Leah Marie Walsh, who passed away in 2010.
This school year alone, the students have undertaken projects with seniors, Ronald McDonald House, the Children’s Wish Foundation and Marguerite’s Place.
The Youth Action Committee’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year they were presented with an environmental award from the Department of Environment and Conservation for their environmental activities, and in 2011, they received the URock Group Volunteer of the Year award for their fundraising activities and community involvement.
Not that the students are looking for awards or any other recognition— a number of them told The Telegram their only motivation is the good feeling they get from helping others, whether they be local or international causes.
“It feels good to receive, but even better to give,” said student Mark Hewitt.
“It makes you feel good to help out people, and it’s a great learning experience. It brings attention to problems you don’t see every day.”
“It’s been a reality check for me,” added Emma Collins. “You get first-hand knowledge with some of our projects. We find out a lot of things we didn’t know before.”
One of the more eye-opening initiatives the group has undertaken, the students said, was done at Christmas: they collected stocking-stuffers from their peers at school, and spent a week filling more than 100 stockings for Street Reach, an outreach service provided by the Community Youth Network which supports at-risk and homeless youth in the St. John’s area.
As part of the project, the students were invited to the service’s facility, where they had a tour and met some of the clients.
“It really does open your eyes,” Level III student Sarah Winsor said. “A lot of time, there’s a (public) focus on issues on a global scale, like poverty in Africa, instead of issues at home, in our community.”
“I have a new empathy for the community,” added Molly Dillon. “When I graduate, I am definitely going to do volunteer work.”
The turnover rate in the group is low — once students join, they stay dedicated all year long. It’s an accomplishment, especially when many of the members are also involved with the student council and other committees within the school.
Dawe and Murphy are also dedicated.
“Being a teacher is all about producing good citizens for the world,” Dawe, a science teacher, explained.
“The Youth Action Committee’s theme is a quote by Gandhi, which states, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ The students of the YAC not only believe it, they continue, through their many actions locally, nationally and globally, to live it. They not only empower themselves in striving to make a difference in the world, they also inspire others, of all ages, to do the same.”