Be the change

By Monica Riehl

A new empathy program is showing kids they have the power to improve the lives of others.

Florence McCarey Payne’s heart sank when she learned her Grade 6 class would have to raise $10,000 to build a well in Africa. “I honestly felt like my stomach was dropping out when I heard the number,” says the vice-principal and teacher at Sycamore Lane Elementary in Lower Sackville.

Her 22 students, however, were undeterred: “One of the boys really grounded me when he said, ‘What do we do with all the extra money that we raise?’”

The students decided to fundraise for a well in Ethiopia after reading the book Ryan and Jimmy: and the well in Africa that brought them together. It chronicles the true story of Ryan Hreljac, a Grade 1 student from Ottawa who in 1998 helped a Uganda community get access to fresh water. Hreljac became lifelong friends with Akana Jimmy, a youth from the village.

Like Hreljac, the Sycamore Lane students are passionate about improving access to clean water for kids in Africa. Children in Africa must walk for miles and miss school to fetch heavy jugs of dirty water for their families.

McCarey Payne and fellow teacher Paula Brigley have been linking the fundraiser to class subjects. “We’re learning we take a lot of stuff for granted,” says Megan Flanagan, a student in the Grade 6 class. Students have been raising awareness and money by holding canteen and flea market sales, selling handmade blue ribbons, holiday ornaments and poinsettias, and by completing random acts of kindness. They’ve also contacted well-drilling companies for help.

Grade 6 students at John W. MacLeod Fleming Tower School held empathy workshops with Blair Ryan, co-founder of the Empathy Factory (far right, in pink shirt).

Grade 6 students at John W. MacLeod Fleming Tower School held empathy workshops with Blair Ryan, co-founder of the Empathy Factory (far right, in pink shirt).

A grassroots empathy leader is also inspiring the kids to make a difference. Blair Ryan is co-founder of the Empathy Factory, a non-profit organization based in Halifax that fosters youth humanitarianism. Since October 2010, he has been visiting schools in Halifax, inspiring students to help others and to think big when it comes to charitable projects.

“The ideas that the kids come up with…are really cool,” he says. Sycamore Lane’s idea to build a well was one of about 20 ideas they discussed with Ryan when he visited the school in October 2011. “They were well aware that it would be a huge undertaking,” he says.

He sees students becoming more conscientious after participating in the program. “I love to see that change,” he says. “One of my favourite things to do is take part in human growth.”

Ryan’s own story of personal growth began when he was diagnosed with chronic liver disease at age 22. It ended his Canadian Football League aspirations, but laid the foundation for the Empathy Factory. He came up with the idea while teaching his stepdaughters to be more empathetic. He challenged them to come up with a way to help others using $10 a week. Their enthusiasm and creativity inspired him to take it further and he made fostering youth philanthropy his career.

He developed his ideas into a school-based program. In one year, the program has spread to more than 30 schools in Halifax. This month, he is launching it in Truro and, later, Cape Breton. Ryan hopes to spread his organization across the province and beyond. “Our mission is to instil empathy in Nova Scotia youth, [but] why would just Nova Scotia need that?” he says.

The program lasts about six weeks. “The first week is heavy-learning week,” Ryan says. After that, he sets forth a challenge, asking students to brainstorm ideas to help others. A panel reviews the ideas, and presents the class with resources to make it a reality. “I try not to lead them at all [in idea selection],” says Ryan. “It’s not my wishes that I’m pushing.”

On a recent visit to a Grade 6 class at John W. MacLeod Fleming Tower School in Halifax, Ryan announced which ideas would become class causes. The excitement in the room was contagious, with students banging out a desktop drum roll. Applause erupted after Ryan announced projects to improve solar energy, save trees and stop puppy mills.

Grade 6 teacher Tracy McFeters signed her class up for the program, hoping it would inspire her students to reach out to others. “I know that they naturally care for those around them,” she writes in an email. “I believe that students must be encouraged to become more aware of other’s feelings and to see situations from alternate points of view.” The

Empathy Factory introduces children to other viewpoints in classroom workshops and at its summer day-camp. Each lesson begins by reviewing the meaning of empathy. On a recent visit to Sycamore Lane, Grade 6 student Robert Richards put it this way. “Empathy is when you step into someone else’s feelings and imagine how they feel,” he said.

To learn more about the program, visit Empathyfactory.com.

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