Toronto Zoo

A Chance to do Something Real

I’ve written before about how our family often hosts homestay students from other countries – Japan, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and now Germany. These students are usually in late high school or early university, and they stay for a semester or two in order to improve their English, experience something of Canadian culture, and make some international contacts.

Our current student has been participating in a local high school program called Beyond Borders that specializes in teaching ethical business leadership by combining traditional classroom work with hands-on trips to major companies, non-profits, government agencies, and team building experiences. The culmination of the program is a huge fundraiser held in the local performing arts venue, River Run Centre, that donates its proceeds to the Guelph General Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and Doctors Without Borders.

The event is an impressive undertaking by any standard, but it’s especially amazing given that it was entirely planned, organized, produced, and run by teens, many of whom had no relevant experience when they began the program just a few months before. The students applied for and occupied every role in the organization, from the directors through the financial officer to the stage management, and they did it all in six weeks.

In that time, they put together an entertainment line-up that included professional dancers, musicians, and spoken word artists, and that featured a Juno-nominated singer. They mixed in student-produced videos about the work they were doing, live testimonials from some of the people involved, and presentations from the featured charities. They also managed to involve a whole list of sponsors from across the city, to run a massive silent auction, and to pack a 700-seat auditorium at $70 a ticket.

And the result was more than $125,000 dollars raised for their charitable partners.

I say all this, not to brag about my homestay student (although he did do a great job as the accompanying pianist), but because it puts the lie, again, to the widespread idea that this current generation of kids is uninterested and apathetic, unable to work hard or passionately at anything, incapable of the focus and drive needed to set never mind accomplish worthwhile goals.

The truth is that this coming generation, given the opportunity and the leadership, is as capable as any of doing great things. The problem is that most of them never have the chance to be engaged in meaningful, hands-on work like the students in Beyond Borders. We keep telling them that they can be anything they set their minds to, but we don’t give them much practical opportunity to be anything at all.

Now, I know that my example isn’t really a fair one, because the kids who apply for a program like Beyond Borders are usually overachievers before the semester even begins. On the other hand, I’ve seen so many examples (admittedly on a much smaller scale) of what happens when even apparently unmotivated young people are given the responsibility of being camp counsellors, referees, part-time apprentices, volunteers, and similarly practical roles.

More often than not, when given something meaningful and tangible to work on, I find that our youth surprise us with their passion and their capacity. Not every kid will rise to these occasions, of course, but it behooves us as adults to give them a chance to prove us wrong before we write them off. They may not all run $125,000 fundraisers, but I’ll bet they accomplish far more than you’ve been led to expect.