As the sun begins to set on Halloween night, hundreds of people pour out of St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School and into the crisp evening air. Armed with bags, boxes and wagons, they walk with purpose as they descend across the Hamilton Mountain.
There are no tricks here, though; the students, parents and alumni disappearing into the night aren’t out to collect the usual sweet treats handed out on Halloween, instead they’re collecting food for the school’s annual WE Scare Hunger event. Their goal for the end of the evening is to break 100,000 pounds of food gathered on behalf of Neighbour to Neighbour Centre—adding up to one million pounds of food donated over two decades of food drives for Hamilton Mountain’s only food bank.
“It’s inspiring every year. It doesn’t get old,” says John Morelli, the educator who runs the school’s WE Club. “Watching teenagers try to make a difference in their community and trying to be good neighbors, it goes against the perception out there that they’re selfish.”
Fifteen percent of Hamilton’s 579,200 residents live in poverty, according to statistics gathered in 2017. Twelve hundred families visit Neighbour to Neighbour every month. To date, St. Thomas More’s WE Scare Hunger event provides the largest single-day donation the center receives.
WE Scare Hunger (WSH) is a WE Schools campaign that empowers youth to raise awareness around the issue of food insecurity within their communities through fundraising for their local food banks. At St. Thomas More, the campaign is a well-oiled machine. Senior students—called “heads”—are in charge of running various aspects of the campaign, from media to sponsorships, while junior students act as their “shadows,” learning the ropes of the role before the elder students graduate.
Morelli has overseen the event since its inception in the summer of 2000, when 30 volunteers spent their Halloween night gathering donations. That first year they visited 900 homes and collected 1,800 pound of food. This year more than 800 people visited 25,000+ homes, helping the school collect over 80,000 pounds of food for local individuals and families in a single night. Thinking back to the early days of the campaign, Morelli sums up the reasoning for beginning it: “Going door to door collecting canned goods instead of candy was a brilliant and fairly easy way to make a difference.”
It’s a cause that hits close to home for the religion teacher.
After graduating from teacher’s college and moving to British Colombia, Morelli found himself in the northern community of Fort St. John. With little supply teaching work to be found, the Hamilton native faced his own struggle with food security.
“I remember not being able to buy fruits and vegetables because they’re more expensive up there,” recalls Morelli. “That was difficult and frustrating. I had to choose, do I buy this really thick winter jacket that I need to walk to work, or do I buy nutritious food?”
While he never had to access a food bank himself, the experience stayed with Morelli even after he’d found a full-time job and moved back to Hamilton. When he heard about WSH he saw his opportunity to help others facing a situation he knew all too well. “When I think of a million pounds, I think of the champion students along the way that have made that milestone possible,” he says. “But I also think of the families that we’re helping. In a country such as Canada, we shouldn’t need to do this.”
One such champion student is Tharani De Silva . “It’s life-changing,” she says of her participation in WSH and WE Schools. “It makes you realize that we need each other to survive. Helping each other is what life is all about.”
The 16-year-old is this year’s Maps Head (she assigns students and volunteers their collection routes), and a proud WE Club member since she was in Grade 6. As she shares, giving back is something she has been motivated to do since she was a child.
Like Morelli, Tharani relates to the struggles of those she’s helping. The Grade 11 student and her parents immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in 2009 to escape a civil war, with hope for access to a better education. Beyond the culture shock of coming to a new country, the family struggled to find their footing after the move.
“Back in my home country I was very fortunate to have everything I needed provided by my parents. When we came to Canada, it was a struggle to find work, shelter and food,” recalls the soft-spoken teen. “My parents provided for me the best that they could, but I thought, ‘When I grow up, I want to help people in those same situations to have food and feel safe, like every human should’.”
It’s the drive of students like Tharani, guided by Morelli—who has inspired roughly 15,000 students since beginning the campaign 20 years ago—that has made St. Thomas More’s WSH event the largest in Canada. Morelli can’t imagine what a year would be like without it.
“Mr. Morelli won’t back down, no matter what it is. WE Scare Hunger is everything,” confirms Grade 11 student Aeva Alexandrovich, this year’s Media Head. Midhaa Ahmed, Aeva’s Grade 10 shadow, seconds the statement, “You can really see his passion for it. He’s got his own children, he could be doing anything else, but the fact that he dedicates so much of his time to this really makes us more motivated.”
Like other schools across Canada participating in WSH, support from Ford Canada has played a large part in their success. The official sponsor of WSH, Ford Canada has supported St. Thomas More’s efforts for the last six years. The morning after the event, the local dealership sends trucks to the school to help ferry the donations to Neighbour to Neighbour.
The school’s partnership with the sponsor, though, goes beyond just transportation. “Ford has been an immense help,” Morelli says. “They’re so busy but they come show their support, and that means a lot to us.”
Beyond the change Morelli and students are helping to create in their community, it’s the transformation the educator sees in his students that energizes him year after year. While every fall brings enthusiastic kids, like Tharani, who have always been inspired and active, there are also those who the WE Schools program, through campaigns including WSH, helps nurture into change-makers. “There are so many life skills that they get to practice. They’re empowered,” he says. “When they finish the campaign they feel so accomplished with the success that they’re able to create.”
Morelli’s passion for WSH hangs in the air on Halloween night. As excited volunteers begin to return with their bounty, St. Thomas More’s cafeteria begins to resemble the aftermath of a food fight. Cans of soup roll under tables. Pudding cups peek out of bags stuffed to the brim with donations.
As the night goes on, the tins, boxes, cans and bags are carefully packed into boxes and piled in the corner of the cafeteria, awaiting the arrival of the Ford trucks tomorrow.
The grand total? Enough non-perishables to keep the families depending on Neighbour to Neighbour Centre fed throughout the holiday season.
Zoe Demarco is a writer and production manager for WE Stories. A third generation journalist, she has a natural curiosity for other people’s lives.