How one Toronto school hit the floor to give more than 500 people clean water for life. Plus, five tips for hosting your own fundraiser to drive change.
By Katie Hewitt
For one winter day every year, the gymnasium at Blythwood Junior Public School in Toronto becomes an unlikely dance club. The fluorescent lights are dimmed and a DJ spins—with teacher supervision. Most of the patrons are underage, too young for prom or a senior formal. And it’s a Tuesday afternoon. Students from kindergarten to Grade 6 hit the shiny, squeaky wooden floor to shake it off for a good cause.
“Who doesn’t love to dance?” wonders Ashley O’Driscoll, Grade 5 student and member of the school’s ME to WE club, which organized the event.
Blythwood’s dance-a-thon is an annual fundraiser that in past years has funded the construction of a school and a hospital wing in Kenya through WE Villages. This year, students armed with clipboards received a record-breaking $12,788 in donations for WE Walk for Water, a campaign that brings clean water to one person for life for $25.
The experience amounted to much more than dollars raised; students broadened their own perspectives, stepped out of their own circumstances and learned that clean water is much more than something to drink.
“It’s so hard for us to imagine what it would be like to walk every day for hours for access to water,” says Michelle Shnaider, Grade 5/6 teacher and faculty head of the school’s ME to WE club. She’s referring to young girls in remote corners of the world, where infrastructure is lacking and collecting water becomes a chore that keeps them from school. Natural water sources in developing communities can be scarce and are often dirty and dangerous to drink.
“It’s hard to make that connection with students when we’re so lucky and so privileged,” she adds.
You’d think the hardest part would be sourcing a pre-teen-appropriate playlist, or raising all that money, or even teaching a full day of class while organizing the full-day event. But the most challenging part was the lesson itself. Students at the school range in age from three to 12, and they all needed to understand the importance of clean water and the significance of their goal.
Tangibility is key, says Ms. Shnaider. “It’s not just clean water in general. Each student had a goal of $25. It’s $25 for a person’s entire life.”
Most students surpassed that goal, bringing clean water to 511 people—more than the population of the student body, at 400. The lesson seems to have caught on.
“Clean water is really important. Without clean water there’s different types of diseases you can get,” explains Grade 5 student Sarah Botha. “And instead of going to school, girls have to get water from the rivers.”
Grade 6 student Dylan O’Neill sums it up: “Once we gave 500 people clean water for life, we didn’t just feel good about giving them water. We felt good about giving them education and health and the other things that water is connected to.”
These students aren’t just quenching thirst; they are saving time, livelihoods and potentially even lives.
Sarah and Dylan are two of the 40 members involved in the ME to WE club. They may not be teenagers yet, but the group are seniors at this school, in the highest grades, 5 and 6.
“They are the leaders,” Ms. Shnaider says. “I facilitate the schedule, but they make sure everything goes well. They lead the younger students, teach them dance moves. They make sure everyone is having a good time.”
What dance move, pray tell, would a 12-year-old teach a three-year-old? What was the favourite song?
“The Cha Cha Slide,” the girls answer in unison, about the wedding reception staple by DJ Casper that was recorded before they were born.
And there is one signature school move called “the floss”—as in dental hygiene.
“It’s in the hips … it’s hard to describe,” says Ms. Shnaider.
WE Walk for Water usually involves a walk to symbolize the long trek that girls take to dirty rivers, and the time sacrificed for the sake of any water source. Blythwood’s dance-a-thon was held in that restless period just before March Break, nearing the end of winter, when moving outside in Toronto is generally avoided.
On June 26, the school will hold a water walk, both in solidarity with girls overseas and in celebration of their fundraising achievement. The journey will be just as important as the funds raised.
“It’s one thing making a donation,” says Ms. Shnaider. “It’s another thing to appreciate what you have and to want to make an impact in other people’s lives.”
Five fundraising tips from a veteran WE Schools teacher
Michelle Shnaider, Grade 5/6 teacher at Toronto’s Blythwood Junior Public School, offers the following five tips to help students drive change:
1. Set tangible goals: It’s important to give students something concrete to work toward. They can understand, for example, that $25 means clean water for life with WE Walk for Water.
2. Plan good PR: Advertise your event with announcements, letters home, emails and constant in-class reminders.
3. Promote friendly competition: In the case of a food drive, for example, students can try to have their class be the one that collects the most items.
4. Include visual cues: Visual indicators of progress can be a great motivator. Place food-collection boxes in each classroom so students can see them gradually filling up. Or track fundraising success by posting an image of a thermometer rising as the amount collected increases.
5. Instil a sense of ownership: I push for the kids to be heavily involved. They go from class to class making announcements. At the event, the older students make sure the younger kids are having a good time. If the kids are involved, then they care more about it. They want to succeed.