Photos via Jessica Sultan.
Last spring, my then-Grade 6 daughter came home with a project from Stittsville Public School (SPS), titled the Pay it Forward Project. Launched by the four-person Grade 6 teaching team at SPS, this project was designed to engage students in the community, allowing them to explore opportunities to be contributing members of society.
The project started off with students learning about various charities, programs and not-for-profit organizations. Students brainstormed as to how they would like to volunteer their time to directly work in support of an organization, or perhaps raise awareness of an issue. Some examples chosen included volunteering time to support the Humane Society; collecting items for babies at the hospital; and collecting used sports gear from local families to be donated to organizations who support those who are unable, financially, to support their children’s participation in organized sport.
My daughter Ella and her friend Hanh-Lien chose the Ottawa Stray Cat Rescue (OSCR) as the organization of their choice.
The students were encouraged to research their chosen association or issue, and become “experts” on each of their causes. For Ella and Hanh-Lien, this involved learning more about specifically what the OSCR did, as well as what items were needed in order to be able to provide said services. For example, the OSCR is always in need of blankets, cat food, litter, carrying cases and litter boxes. The students were then asked to create a plan for their undertaking, including goals, activities to achieve this, and required support along the way (written information, parental time, donations from community etc.).
Once the plans were complete, the students were let loose to wreak good on the community. Ella and Hanh-Lien did a bottle drive. They held a bake sale. The girls canvassed family and neighbours for unused linens, such as old table cloths or receiving blankets, which could be used as bedding for the cats. Ella and Hanh-Lien visited business with a pet-orientation, explaining the OSCR, the Pay it Forward project, and what they hoped to achieve. All sources approached were exceptionally generous, reinforcing the girls’ confidence that the task they were undertaking was important and meaningful. I was heartened by the warm welcome from various community members who took the time to listen to these young people, value their engagement and contribution, and encourage their continued social activism.
At the culmination of the project, students were encouraged to contact the organization or cause they had chosen and to meet with them to share what was learned, gathered and prepared in support of the selected entity. Additionally, the teachers at SPS organized a Pay it Forward Fair, where students exhibited their achievements to the school community and to their parents – an opportunity for the kids to show off what they’d learned and accomplished, as well as inspire younger students to follow such winning examples.
The students were encouraged to create their own dialogue with the organizations or causes they had chosen. I am shamelessly proud to be the mother of the young woman who authored this email — a clear demonstration of the social-minded, selfless motivation so evident in these Pay it Forward projects:
Hello, my name is Ella Sultan and I am 12 years old. My best friend Hanh-Lien and I recently had a school assignment to choose a charity and then do something for them. Since we love cats, we chose the Ottawa Stray Cat Rescue. We decided to do a bottle drive and collect donations. We used the money that we earned to buy items on your donation list, and we managed to collect: blankets, toys, food, beds, treats, litter boxes, a carrier, and other things that we thought that they would like. We have finished our fundraiser (for now at least) and are wondering where we should drop off the things, and when it works for you (preferably before school starts!)
Please let me know soon! Thanks, Ella.
The OSCR responded in a wonderfully enthusiastic way, and one night in the last week of August, Hanh-Lien’s Mom took the girls to drop off their items. The list of gear they managed to collect was staggering – the OSCR was stunned. The girls had received not only donations of goods, but of funds. They then stretched those dollars as far as possible by shopping garage sales, thrift and dollar stores to purchase the items needed at rock bottom price.
While this outcome is remarkable, in terms of volume of funds raised to purchase such a large haul of items, as well as the organization and dedication shown by Hanh-Lien and Ella to achieve this, I’d argue that there is a different key outcome requiring celebration: that of autonomous desire to contribute – to make the world better, and to be a part of Paying it Forward.
The girls were not driven by status or materialistic or selfish purpose. Rather, Hanh-Lien and Ella undertook this challenge for the simple reason that there was a need, and they could take action to help. They chose a cause they are passionate about and gave of themselves to make good things happen. Ella and Hanh-Lien showed that even just two people can make a big impact.
Enormous kudos to the Grade 6 teaching team at SPS for having the insight to address such a critical life skill: for teaching our children not only aptitudes of academic value, but also key competencies that make our children better citizens and prep them for a lifetime of compassion, empathy and generosity.
Jessica Sultan is a Stittsville mom and writer.