Two teachers and their single passion to change the world—side-by-side.
BY JESSE MINTZ
Ask most couples about the beginning of their relationship, and they’re quick to share landmarks. Where they went on their first date. The coffee shop they both fell in love with together. The park they strolled through after a romantic dinner.
For teachers and partners Tanya Reilly-Primaylon and Aldrin Primaylon, though, the most important landmark in their origin story is an idea, more so than a place.
One Sunday afternoon, the couple was watching TV and stumbled across a documentary. It showed students across Canada giving back to both their communities and contributing to development projects around the world, through a new service learning program. The documentary was about the budding WE Movement, and after watching it, something sparked within both educators, leading them down a shared path.
In the years to come, this path would take them to Kenya, where they would shape young minds through exposure to other cultures; it would transform the way they taught in the classroom; and it would help them raise caring, compassionate children as parents.
On the day the documentary found its way into their living room, though, they didn’t know any of this. Still, they were hooked.
It wasn’t long before they both dug into WE Schools’ resources and started a WE club at their Toronto schools—Tanya at St. Maria Goretti Catholic School and Aldrin at St. Brendan Catholic School. While similar in objective, each club played out differently in their respective classrooms.
Many of Tanya’s students are recent immigrants; nearly all of Aldrin’s are from Canada. While most of Tanya’s students are underprivileged, Aldrin’s are relatively affluent. When Tanya talks about poverty around the world and hunger throughout Canada, her students have firsthand knowledge. (They fled countries facing those problems and many rely on social services to get by.) Aldrin’s students can’t relate in the same way; they’ve never lived in poverty or felt the pangs of hunger.
But Aldrin brings something special to the table when he talks about those important issues and the responsibility to help people in need. Originally from the Philippines, he draws on stories of poverty from his childhood and memories of coming to Canada at age 12 with his family looking to start a new life.
For Tanya, the issues she raises are already real for her students. For Aldrin, he makes them come alive with his own stories. But while they teach young people from vastly different backgrounds, they realized early in their journey with WE that the lessons and impacts are similar: giving back to others is empowering.
“Kids who are new to the country and have had a totally different experience of privilege, they still have that feeling of wanting to help,” explains Tanya empathetically. “If we can empower them to make them feel like leaders—like they’re a part of something—it changes how they see themselves.”
That epiphany moment of realizing together people can make an impact is something Aldrin has seen in his students, as well.
“Learning from my experience, seeing the world through WE, it’s changed their perspective,” he says. The WE club at his school has grown from 4 students to 45. They host bake sales, lemonade stands and raffles to fundraise for development projects overseas, in addition to collecting donations for local food drives and clothing for people in need. “My students may be more privileged, but they do understand the need and they want to help.”
Those early lessons from the classroom translated into guiding principles of parenthood when they had their first child, Liam. Now 8, Liam was joined by Braden, 6 and Naya, 4. The fivesome have made giving back a central plank of family life.
“I want our kids to be nice people, I want them to think not about themselves, but about the world and people around them,” says Tanya, her voice a mix of hope and pride. “I want them to give to people, to be kind, to be nice, and to have a purpose.”
Those aspirations will be familiar to many parents. Tanya and Aldrin have found ways—both big and small—to plant seeds of compassion in their children.
When they see people living on the street, their kids are encouraged to say hello, introduce themselves and ask the person’s name, while giving some change. Every birthday, their children pick out a toy for themselves and one for a birthday girl or boy in need. Back home during dinner time, the family talks about issues from the news, like the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and how they can help.
In the classroom and at home, the young minds this pair shapes are a reflection of themselves.
When Tanya and Aldrin first saw that life-changing documentary more than 10 years ago, they had no idea where it would lead them. A year and a half later, the couple was married and celebrating their first wedding anniversary. If there was a clue to what kind of teachers and parents they would be become, it was there, on that special day.
Anniversaries are a celebration of love and time spent together. They are selfish by nature—but not for Tanya and Aldrin.
There was no champagne to mark the day, no flowers or big gifts for the couple on their first anniversary. There were a few stolen moments together before the couple joined 20 students and community members working to finish a schoolroom in a community in the Maasai Mara.
This is how celebrating your anniversary on a ME to WE trip in Kenya plays out.
Still, there were festivities. After the build that day they broke for lunch to find the students and community members had organized a surprise for them: streamers and balloons adorned the mess tent, while a cake was baked special for the occasion.
For Tanya, the highlight wasn’t this show of overwhelming hospitality, the beautiful locale or even the love she felt for those around her; they’d gone to Kenya to share an experience and help build a school. That is what it was all about.
Aldrin is a handyman, and the morning of their anniversary, he put the first nails in the school’s green tin roof. As he climbed down the ladder—the school nearly complete and his life with Tanya just beginning—the promise that lay ahead dawned on both him and his partner.
When the couple cut their cake that evening, they were celebrating the new school, as much as their anniversary—a portend of the selflessness of their relationship to come.
“It wasn’t glamourous… we were in a tent in the middle of the [Maasai] Mara,” recalls Aldrin with a laugh. “But it was amazing because it was an experience we shared, one we’ll always take with us […] We hope our children will take these lessons and get involved.”