A Montreal elementary school turns sporadic kindness into habitual change-making.

By Sarah Fox


“I’ve always had [this] vision,” says Carmen Nicolas, the principal at Montreal’s Willingdon School. “Yes, it’s important that students learn and become successful academically, but there’s also purpose. Purpose is really important in order to be fulfilled.”

It’s this vision—a vision shared by the educator’s fellow staff at Willingdon—that’s spawned three clubs at her elementary school: the green committee, student council and athletic council. Focusing on purpose has nurtured recycling programs that require students to give up their lunch period to rinse milk cartons; it’s influenced the success of fundraising initiatives like Terry Fox (which brought in over $26,000 this year); and it caught the attention of WE.

Before 2016, when WE approached Willingdon about enrolling in the WE Schools program—a service learning program offering fundraising and volunteer opportunities—it was already practicing compassion in pockets. The student council fostered a child in Ecuador, classrooms were fundraising for the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) Food Depot, while some students took on writing holiday cards for the homeless. Then, through yet another school group, Unité Sans Violence, Grade 6 students were encouraged to act as mentors and asked to guide the Grade 1 and 2’s through scenarios centred around bullying, self-confidence and academic success.

But, despite all this good will, something was still missing. Willingdon had heart—that was clear—what it needed was a central valve to pump kindness through to every vein in the school. With this, teachers would be able to take their students’ dedication to the local community and expand it beyond the city limits.

That’s where WE came in.

“The thing that attracted us to WE as a model was the fact that it was celebrating local actions and global actions,” says Kathleen Usher, a science teacher at Willingdon. Kathleen also heads the green committee at the school. She adds, “Willingdon is committed to its community; there’s a nice partnership there… to reach out and go beyond.”

The school began its journey by choosing a partner country to focus on and a pillar from one of the five areas of international development work the organization offers to communities. For students, the choice in region was obvious: Ecuador—home to the school’s foster child. For the pillar, they went with water to expand on lessons in local clean water issues already at play in the classroom.

To kick things off, they held a disposable water bottle event, where students and community members were invited to fill up their bottles and challenged not waste a drop.

Next came the bake sale. Then, after raising $856 through that fundraiser, students organized a school-wide photo for Earth day. Taken from high above their school, students and teachers formed a symbolic “W” to mark their milestone achievements. “W” for Willingdon, “W” for water and “W” for WE.

This year, the school continues to have water on the brain. Visit the halls of Willingdon and you’ll find students busy preparing for WE Walk for Water. A WE Schools’ campaign, WE Walk for Water can be tailored to fit the charity goals of its participants. As Kathleen shares, water projects in Ecuador are the motivator behind her students’ enthusiasm for the fundraiser.

On the week of April 27, when the water walk will take place, they plan to have a “Blue Day.” Picture it: students and faculty invited to wear a blue shirt and donate a toonie to be in another aerial photo. This time, they’ll be forming a water drop.

“This spreads out across the whole school,” Kathleen gushes, as she talks about preparations for WE Walk for Water. With all classrooms invested, good ideas are endless. At the top of the list are a couple of activities meant to replicate the physical toll a water walk carries for those across the globe who count it as a daily responsibility. One idea will see students do 10 push-ups before they can fill their water bottles up at the school’s fountains, while another will have them don the average weight of a jerrycan filled with water on their backs, during the walk.

Galvanizing students is a passion Kathleen shares with the school’s principal, Carmen, as well as Isabelle Daniel, who heads the student council. For this trio of educators, teasing out students’ tenacity to lead projects in the name of volunteerism is more than just a 9 to 5. “Each start of the school year, I feel like a new teacher full of excitement,” Isabelle says. “Teaching is not a job to me; it is my calling, my vocation; it is what I am meant to do.”

As the principal puts it, because of WE, giving back is now “engrained in the school’s culture”—a culture all three educators agree is based on kindness. With generations of change-makers passing through Willingdon’s doors, the future is bright; the sky, really is the limit. “[WE is] an umbrella that has wings; it brings us out to the wider world.”

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