Youth and Philanthropy Initiative

Niagara YPI team starts school campaign to confront domestic violence

“You hear that even a little thing can make a change, but I never thought that I’d be the one making that change.”

These are the words of Alexa, a grade 10 student at Eden High School who is part of a student team currently participating in YPI. The “little thing” she’s referring to is a school-wide campaign and fundraiser. I caught up with Alexa and her friends to hear the whole story.

Alexa, Paige, Kaylyn and Devon are representing Gillian’s Place, a resource centre and shelter for survivors of domestic violence. Surprised to learn that cases of domestic violence are on the rise in the Niagara region, they saw an opportunity to educate their classmates on an issue that is often kept hidden and is poorly understood, especially by people their age.

But after meeting with Valerie DuRoss, the Development and Communications Coordinator at Gillian’s Place, they wanted to reach more than just the other students in Mr. Arnt’s Civics class. When they found out how precarious the organization’s funding can be, it gave them additional motivation. Only about 65% of their budget comes from government sources, and if they can’t raise the rest, they have to cut services. “For them to have to make cuts would be absolutely heartbreaking,” they told me, “and no one should ever have to lose their job over that.”

They started by talking to their school principal, Sharon Burns, about holding a fundraiser – she was sold. Eden is a uniformed school, so they decided to have a Purple Shirt “dress down day” with a minimum donation of $1. Participating students were asked to wear purple, the signature colour of Gillian’s Place. To promote the dress down day, the team went to every homeroom class, speaking to all 800 of their schoolmates about Gillian’s Place and how dating violence affects even teenagers. They raised $250, with about a quarter of the school showing up in purple and some giving over and above the $1 minimum donation.

“I don’t think we ever thought we would raise this much money, or have this impact.”

With Ms. Burns as chaperone on a lunch hour road trip, giddy and excited, they braved the rain to deliver the cheque in person. More than money, they told me, it was like handing over their love, their care and their help. This sentiment was shared by the organization’s staff. “Part of the value of this donation goes beyond the dollar amount, in that it has opened up opportunities between Eden High and Gillian’s Place,” said DuRoss.

The students already have plans to make Purple Shirt Day an annual campaign, and to run periodic donation drives for toiletries and personal care items that are always in high demand for the women in the residential program. And until they are old enough to volunteer at Gillian’s Place (you have to be 18), they will be looking at ways to make their school and other schools safer from teen dating violence.

The ultimate goal, as they see it, is to reduce the number of women too afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them by making school a safe place where people feel like they can talk. The same way that the school nurse and guidance counsellors now have training around mental health, they’d like to talk to the District School Board of Niagara about similar programming to support survivors of dating violence, noting that many students may not be able to talk to parents, or access programming off-site somewhere like Gillian’s Place.

This team will be advancing to the YPI Finals at their school in June, where they’ll have a chance to win the $5000 grant for Gillian’s Place, but they say they’re not nervous. They’re proud of what they’ve already accomplished and plan to maintain their connection with the charity either way.

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