Seven students in a town of 500 set an ambitious goal… and then shattered it.

By Jesse Mintz

 

The four-hour drive from Saskatoon back to the small town of Eastend, in the far south west corner of Saskatchewan, offered plenty of time to reflect on everything the students had just seen at WE Day.

Chris Hadfield’s humble beginnings from a corn farm in Ontario made his accomplishments in space even more inspiring. Rick Hansen’s 40,000 kilometer wheelchair journey showed how far determination takes one. And Dr. Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first female president, proved that nothing is impossible.

But it was the families they’d met the day before, visiting the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Saskatoon, that left the biggest mark on students from Eastend School’s WE committee.

“We were really moved by the atmosphere, how loving and caring it is,” says Janise Michel, Grade 12 student and leader of the committee. “We were all touched by the impact we saw, and we wanted to contribute.”

The seed was planted in March of last year, but Dee Dean—the WE committee’s dedicated teacher—was unsure how long the group’s enthusiasm for WE Day, as well as their concern for the families at Ronald McDonald House, would actually last. And really, what could they do as a school of 100 students in a town of 500 people?

“The whole ride they talked about getting involved, coming back, cooking meals for families,” recalls Dee. “My first thought was: ‘This is March, they’re teenagers, let’s see what happens come September.’”

Looking back, Dee can’t believe she ever underestimated her students. September ushered in the first day of school, and with it came kids knocking on her door, ready to start planning. “The energy didn’t fade,” she notes. “That’s the passion WE has awoken in these kids.”

 

Dee brought WE Schools to Eastend four years ago. Since then, it’s become an integral part of the school and community, empowering students to give back. Students have embraced the WE philosophy, and this year, one quarter are members of the WE committee. They’ve visited senior centres, held clothing and food drives, in addition to fundraising for education in developing communities.

As for the committee’s work with the Ronald McDonald House, getting involved with this charity was motivated by a sense of community—exactly what the house provides during difficult times. Families from across the province with young children receiving medical treatment in Saskatoon’s hospital are welcome to stay at the house for just $10 a night, where they receive meals and find support from both staff and fellow guests.

When the students first got to work on their fundraising idea ,many thought it to be impossible. Dee, though, believed the tiny K-12 school, in her small town, could raise $30,000 to sponsor a room at the Ronald McDonald House.

For some, the mission hit particularly close to home.

“I was born six weeks premature, so my mother was in the hospital for a few weeks and my father stayed [at the Ronald McDonald House],” says Janise. “I’m not the only connection; my story is just one.”

In 2015, an ATV crash killed a young boy in the neighboring town of Frontier and sent his three-year-old brother to the hospital. After the accident, the parents spent the next few months at the Ronald McDonald House.“That really resonated with us,” shares Dee. “Seeing their pain, we understand better what it’s like to lose young people… we’ve lived it.”

To reach their goal of raising $30,000, the students created the Raising Hope Gala. It wasn’t long before this 300-person event—boasting food donated by local restaurants, musicians, magicians, and both a silent and live auction—was sold out. The gala gathered nearly everyone in town with many guests travelling from surrounding communities. “It was incredible to see it come together,” says Will Banford, a Grade 11 Eastend student and WE committee member. “We were the driving force, but we couldn’t have done it without the community and the towns that pitched in.”

From the live auction alone, the committee raised over $21,000, topping their wildest expectations and nearly reaching their goal for the entire year. Still, they were $9000 dollars short of what they needed to sponsor a room.

It wasn’t until the following week, though, when they added proceeds from ticket sales and extra donations that they realized they’d collected over $65,000, more than doubling their goal. It was clear their success belonged to the entire community when they posted news of raising enough to sponsor two rooms, and it was shared 25,000 times on Facebook. “It went viral,” says Janise. “It was wild.”

 

While some people in the community wondered why the money raised wasn’t supporting local organizations, Janise and the other committee members were confident it would benefit everyone in Eastend and across the province.

“My dad tells this story about his time here,” she recalls, sitting in the lobby of the Ronald McDonald House in Saskatoon. He met a man at the house from the far north of the province, whose son was at the hospital. He’d never been to the city before and the two bonded over the comfort of community in a trying time. “From the north to the south west, this money makes a difference for everyone in Saskatchewan.”

When you walk through the Ronald McDonald House, you can’t help but notice the plaques.

Cargill Front Lobby. Ernst and Young Computer Commons. CIBC Wood Gundy Volunteer Room.

Now, Eastend School’s name will grace plaques outside two rooms, providing refuge to Saskatchewan families when they need it most.

For Dee, it all comes back to WE.

“I’ve seen such incredible growth in our students. During my many decades of being in education, this is the most amazing youth movement I’ve ever seen,” she gushes, sitting at the Ronald McDonald House, surrounded by her WE committee… “There’s no pressure, no expectations, these kids just really believe they can make a difference and they’ve proven it over and over. They’re amazing.”

Of the seven core WE committee members, most are nearing graduation. The youngest, Grade 8 student Lachlan Humphrey, doesn’t see any reason to slow down.

“WE taught me not to sell myself short,” he says. “We’re from a town of 500 people and look at all we accomplished.”