When I was a kid, I struggled significantly with reading and comprehension. As a result, I acted out and spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. When I graduated from high school, I decided I wanted to be a different kind of teacher - a teacher who would help children who were struggling, treating them with respect, kindness and compassion.
When I went to Teacher’s College, I asked right away to do my placement in an alternative setting, like a youth detention centre or mental health hospital. Though this wasn’t common at the time, my professor approved the request and I began my personal journey of working with some of the most vulnerable youth.
I spent many years as a teacher working with youth in jails and group homes. My main focus was on teaching life and social skills, as well as how to build healthy relationships with themselves. At times it was challenging and often it was heartbreaking. I worked with a wide range of youth - from those who had experienced extreme abuse to those who had been accused of murder. I saw incredible results within these children, who were often treated less than human.
Learning by doing was the main teaching modality I followed, and it worked. My students would show up everyday to my classroom regardless of what happened to them the night before. They would open up to me and together we would navigate their daily struggles. The common theme was they just wanted to be treated like regular people: with dignity and respect. They longed for a ‘normal’ life and dreamed about one day getting a job and taking care of themselves.
Seeing how the children trusted me enough to show up daily and check in, regardless of what was happening to them, made me want to be the best teacher I could possibly be. My goal was to give them skills and tools necessary to be able to reintegrate into society and get their dream job. Not only did I teach life and social skills, but I also got them off the streets and out into the world. Together, we volunteered at various places throughout the city of Toronto. As a result, my students won numerous awards for community volunteering. How incredible is that? Vulnerable youth were winning awards for giving back.
One Tuesday afternoon in January 2010, while my students and I were returning to school after volunteering at a homeless shelter, I watched on the subway TV the devastation in Haiti caused by the earthquake.
My students saw the sadness in my eyes and asked what was going on. I pointed to the screen and said, “You kids think you have it bad? There are children in this world who would give anything to be you.”
They could not believe what they heard and said, "no one wants to be like us, what do you mean?”
I said, “You know the group home you hate? And the school and hospital you complain about?” They said, “yes”.
“Well, there are children in this world who do not have any of those things and would give anything to have a group home, a hospital, or a school to attend.”
My students were very shocked to hear what I was sharing with them. They responded, “Miss B, you tell us every morning we can do anything we set our minds to, so we have to do something to help these students. We need to build a school so they can have the same opportunity we do.”
And shortly thereafter, we launched the Haiti School Building Project. I had never been to Haiti and I did not know how to build a school. Yet, I wanted to be a role model to my students and show them how together we can do anything we set our minds to!
It wasn’t easy but after several years of fundraising, many visits to Haiti and lots of hard work, we opened the doors to the school in Canaan, Haiti in September 2018 and welcomed 111 students.