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UofGH’s ECS students build community while advocating for children

For University of Guelph-Humber’s Early Childhood Studies (ECS) program, teaching students to become successful professionals is just one aspect of their education. Through the ECS program’s many events and initiatives throughout the school year, students learn to give back, build community, advocate, and make a difference in children’s lives – in the community and around the world.

“We feel a sense of responsibility not only to children, but to our students, and the children they’re going to interact with,” says ECS Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn. “It’s so important to make a difference in a child’s life.”

Sick Kids Get Loud March

Five ECS students at Get Loud march
Photo courtesy of Aren Sammy

ECS students kicked off the school year by participating in the Sick Kids Get Loud march on September 28, 2019 which helped raise money for a new research building at Sick Kids Hospital. Aren Sammy, ECS Program and Events Coordinator, says that starting the academic year with this event sets the tone for the rest of the year. “It’s a really great way to start our year, because it fosters such a strong community and a sense of advocacy which people in our field need to take, and the Sick Kids Get Loud march is a wonderful opportunity for students to find their voice in advocating for children,” she says.

Orange Shirt Day

Over 100 ECS students, staff, and faculty gathered at the Humber Arboretum to commemorate Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters on September 30, 2019. Orange Shirt Day is an annual, Canada-wide initiative to raise awareness about Indigenous history, and the residential school system’s impact on Indigenous children and families. ECS students sold orange T-shirts in the UofGH atrium leading up to Orange Shirt Day, and participated in a Blanket Exercise at the Arboretum led by Bear Standing Tall.

Students take part in Orange Shirt Day

“What’s impactful about this particular experience is that we may learn about Indigenous history in school, but to see and have an experience where we’re actually being told how many children died, and we’re acting as those children, it makes it more real - it’s not just a story, it’s something that actually happened,” says Dr. Elena Merenda, Assistant Program Head of ECS. “It’s something you’ll remember - you don’t always remember something that is lectured to you in a classroom, but an experience like this you take with you.”

“We want a space for people to understand human experiences that unite us, and the more we understand about other children, the more we understand that every single child matters,” adds Dr. Martyn. “If we can provide experiences where students are able to understand others and their experiences, it will help them to be able to understand where children come from in order to support the whole child.”

WE Scare Hunger and Helping Our Northern Neighbours

Every year, throughout October, ECS students collect food donations as part of WE Scare Hunger. In addition to donating food to the Mississauga Food Bank, for the first time the ECS program sponsored three families in Nunavut through Helping Our Northern Neighbours. Each family had eight or nine family members, with children ranging in age from newborn to 18 years old. Students filled boxes with food, and items customized to the families’ needs, such as personal care items, baby formula, and diapers. “We went through each of the boxes, and made sure the items in it were appropriate for the ages in the family,” says Sammy.

“It was so fulfilling,” Sammy continues. “We just see such a need to help with the Northern communities in Canada, and I was so inspired – just the experience of helping these families, I really want to bring awareness to this organization because not many people know about this.”

National Child Day

Students standing in a circle in the atrium

November 20, 2019 was National Child Day, which also marked the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. ECS students created an experiential art installation in the Atrium. They dressed in white T-shirts with a child’s right on one side, and a Canadian statistic from a UNICEF report on the other, showing how Canada is actually responding to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Students assembled into groups and stood back-to-back in silence showing the Child’s Right on the shirt, then minutes later, coming together to form one large circle, holding hands in unity, exposing the statistic of how Canada is actually responding to Children’s Rights. The experiential advocacy project was designed with the hope of creating awareness about children’s issues and changing perceptions.    

“We’re going to be working with all kinds of different, diverse children, and it’s important to know about their rights and advocate and fight for them, because even though this movement is small, it might make a big impact in the future,” says third-year ECS student Tracy Nguyen.

“I think you can’t be a program focused so much on children and educating children, and not care about the negative things that might be going on in children’s lives, and challenges they might be facing,” says third-year ECS student Samantha Sinopoli. “It’s really important that we care about all children.”

Students posing in National Child Day shirts

The event was impactful for both participants and spectators alike. “Anybody who saw the art installation said it was an amazing event and they could feel the students’ passion, and the program’s passion,” says ECS Assistant Program Head, Dr. Elena Merenda.

“I was so taken by the students’ ability to sit in the discomfort and do this. The brilliance of this art installation – in the same way that art disrupts, I think this disrupts, it makes you feel uncomfortable, that is where change happens” says Dr. Martyn. “I hope there was some inspiration and hope to be able to affect change, to be able to prioritize children, to understand the importance and relevance of children in society today.”

Operation Christmas Child

Throughout November, ECS students participated in Operation Christmas Child, where they filled approximately 60 boxes that were sent to children all over the world.

Third-year ECS student Katie Woyce says she packed a box for a 10-to-14-year-old girl, and choosing items for the box made her reflect on her own childhood. “I was thinking about how I was at that age, and during the holiday season my parents were able to buy me gifts; but for many people around the world, their parents aren’t able to afford it,” she says. “Simple care items like pencil crayons, markers, a notebook, simple things like a toothbrush – I thought adding simple things like that would make a big impact on their life, and it makes me happy that they might get some joy out of this little box that I put together.”

Ronald McDonald Home for Dinner

Students cook at Ronald McDonald House Charities

On February 6, 20 ECS students and staff volunteered to cook dinner for approximately 120 people at Ronald McDonald House as part of the ECS program’s annual Ronald McDonald Home for Dinner initiative. “This is one of the best events we do, because in this way we are serving children and their families and being with them, and it feels really good,” says Sammy.

Fostering a culture of giving back to children in the community, advocating for them, and trying to effect change are things that will hopefully carry into students’ future careers.

“As students who are not working in the field yet, I love that our program heads are so passionate about these kinds of events, because it teaches us as students to carry this into our work – I would try to hold events like this at my school or workplace, and I would always try to be involved in some kind of fundraiser, and I’ve learned a lot about giving back from UofGH,” adds Woyce.

“The students come into our program knowing that they will work with children, but they don’t know what will look like or what they want to do – the opportunities we provide for them allows them to find their passion and discover who their authentic self is,” says Dr. Merenda. “If we can provide students with opportunities to explore those pieces of themselves, that’s also a really important part of their education.”

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