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Reading, writing and responsibility

"They're still kids, but they're kids who care"

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It's not all about you. Some of us never grasp that valuable life lesson, but it's one a close-knit group of Grade 7 students at Windsor School has been grappling with as their rookie season in junior high draws to an end.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Class of 2017 -- whose progress the Free Press is tracking from kindergarten all the way to Grade 12 graduation -- is developing a social conscience.

Their first year in the big leagues at the 238-student, K-8 school in St. Vital has been all about change -- no more recess, no more sitting in the same class all day, and everyone gets their very own locker.

But the biggest change has been the size of the expectations placed on their still-small shoulders. With elementary school a fading memory, it's no longer just about reading, writing and playing with your friends.

It's also about leadership, responsibility and a growing awareness there are other people in the world, people who just might need your help from time to time.

Over the past nine months, the Class of 2017 has helped to organize and execute a wide range of events to help their school, to help their community and to make life better for the poorest of the poor in the slums of East Africa.

With summer vacation knocking at the door, they're throwing themselves into a project close to home -- a drive to raise money to replace the school's decaying wooden play structure, which isn't accessible to children and parents who rely on wheelchairs.

On June 1, the Class of 2017 shepherded the elementary students at Windsor School in a walkathon and a cleanathon to raise money for a new, accessible play structure.

Armed with garbage bags and gloves, the students fanned out in the community to clean up designated areas, then kept a wary eye on the smaller kids as they navigated a circuit around the nearby Canoe Club.

"It's an event that will be good for the community, good for the environment and good for the students because they'll be outside exercising together, cleaning and walking together and helping others," Windsor principal Ann Walker explained in an earlier interview.

"It's not just the school that uses the play structure; it's the whole community because there's not a lot of play structures in the area. We have people in our community who can't use our old play structure, so this is about helping others."

No one needs to tell 12-year-old Griffin how important this latest campaign is -- his younger brother, Tyler, a Grade 1 student, has cerebral palsy.

"My brother uses a wheelchair, and he can't use the play structure because it's surrounded by pea gravel and there's no ramps and it's all stairs and stuff," Griffin quietly tells a visitor. "It feels like he's left out."

Then, looking into the distance, this boy who dreams of playing in the NHL talks proudly of how Tyler's young school buddies show solidarity for their physically challenged friend.

"At recess, kids don't go on the structure," Griffin declares. "They walk around with him. They care!"

Sitting nearby, listening attentively, Aby, 12, eagerly chimes in: "It means a lot to everyone. We all want to help raise money to help Tyler be a part of normal class life. We just want him to feel like he's a normal kid."

For Aby, helping runs in the family. Aided by her brother, Micah, now a Grade 9 student, she created Water From Windsor, an initiative that raises cash to buy water filters to ensure families in a slum area of Nairobi have access to clean water.

In February 2011, spurning a visit to Disneyland, the siblings chose to visit the slums with their family.

"Africa was life-changing," says Aby, who dreams of being a special-needs teacher. "We wanted to do something important and change people's lives. It made me more grateful for everything here, and I made friends."

Sure, the members of the Class of 2017 are still kids, but get them talking about the importance of volunteering and helping others and it becomes clear they're starting to think about things other than hockey and video games.

Noah wasn't necessarily looking forward to riding herd on the elementary school kids during the walkathon -- "They don't listen!" -- but he's proud his class raised about $900 for cancer research during Terry Fox Day events.

"You've gotta help people, and you know you did something. What is it they say? A hero is somebody who does something good, not for a reward but because they can."

With a little prodding, Jesse admits he's trying to lend a hand.

"I help my neighbour clean the snow off her walk just for the good of it," he says, shrugging. "I help my grandparents clean up their house.

"Most kids have a heart."

Speaking of heart, Avery, who is now rocking the new Justin Bieber haircut, was among a handful of classmates at Winnipeg's first-ever rally for We Day last fall, where students were motivated to tackle local and global issues.

"It was basically like a concert, only more inspirational," Avery recalls. "There were tons of speakers talking about how important it is to help people who are less fortunate. When I walked away, I felt I should be doing something like organizing the walkathon and the cleanup."

Replacing the rundown wooden play structure, adds Garrett, is important, "because you're helping the little kids who can't do much and that's good and it's not just for them; it's for future grades, too."

Chris Arnold, one of two homeroom teachers for the Class of 2017, stresses the walkathon/cleanathon is just one of the charitable activities the students have been involved in since starting their career in junior high.

"When they're given an opportunity to see where there's a need, they'll help address it," Arnold says.

"They're still kids, but they're kids who care."

In coming weeks, the students will visit a seniors home, Siloam Mission and Winnipeg Harvest food bank.

"They're among the oldest students in the school and it's their responsibility to lead in a positive way and set a good example for the type of community they want to have," Arnold declares.

For her part, principal Walker agrees a lot more is expected when kids reach Grade 7.

"We don't wait until grade seven and eight to teach about caring for others," she insists, "but there's a big change in grade seven and eight in that they are a lot more involved in the organizing. It's a key time to realize how they can contribute to community service."

Earlier this year, she notes, the kids came up with the idea for a hockey tournament to benefit Water From Windsor. Told to ensure every student was included, the idea grew into a winter festival featuring events revolving around the theme of the earth's water resources.

No one is saying they're angels, but the seventh-graders confess they get a warm, fuzzy feeling helping others.

Sarah recently helped her mom collect cash for breast cancer.

"It feels like something worth doing because other people are sick and you're trying to cure them," she explains.

Julianna volunteers every Thursday afternoon at St. Amant Centre.

"I volunteer at the day care and help little kids," she whispers. "I just have to play with them. It's fun, sometimes."

Naomi is spreading her wings as a babysitter.

"I'm babysitting my cousins and my little brother," she says proudly. "My brother won't listen to me, but my cousins will."

Mackenzie volunteered on pizza day in support of cancer research.

"It's important because you're helping a cause," she points out, "I love helping animals, especially dogs. I hate those commercials where they look so sad.

"Older people think all we do is text each other, but we do more than that."

Hailey couldn't agree more.

"We're the older kids now, and we take on some of the leadership," she advises.

Sydney believes volunteering is important "because if you get a chance to help, you should."

And that's just what Quinn, 13, does in the gym at St. Amant, although he's reluctant to make a big deal of it.

"It makes me feel good that I'm giving back," Quinn admits, thoughtfully.

"When we were young, we just thought about ourselves, but now we have to think about our lives and what path we want to take."

Then, after a brief pause, he adds: "You have to start thinking of what you're going to do in your life."

Danelle Bradshaw, the other homeroom teacher for the Class of 2017, says kids at this age are far more altruistic than adults give them credit for, and they demonstrate true compassion and leadership.

"They're at that age where they don't see the obstacles to things, so they dream really big," Bradshaw says, beaming.

"Sometimes we have to get them focused. They really do stop and think about people's needs. They're at that turning point of being a kid and being an older teen where they can take their own ideas and really run with them."

But, like we said earlier, no one needs to tell that to Griffin, a young man who is working hard to ensure his disabled younger brother can enjoy an accessible play structure at school, just like everyone else.

"This teaches you about life," the flame-haired little philosopher tells a middle-aged visitor.

"This is the early stages of our future. It's when we realize that helping is better than taking."

Here's how you can help

The Class of 2017 is working hard to raise money to replace Windsor School's aging wooden play structure, which isn't accessible to kids and adults who use wheelchairs.

The Windsor Home and School Association, which is leading the campaign, has set a target of $150,000.

If you'd like to help these philanthropic kids, cheques can be made payable to LRSD General Trust (put "Windsor School Play Structure" in the memo line at the bottom left). Tax receipts will be provided for cheques of $10 or more; please send cheques to Windsor School, 80 Cunnington Ave.; Winnipeg, Man., R2M 0W7.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 J1

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