As students of St. Andrew’s Elementary School in the Kashechewan First Nation community are experiencing their annual evacuation due to risk of flooding, the Grade 4 students each received a special evacuation backpack from the Grade 4 class at Beacon Christian School.
With an April 19 evacuation date, the northern Ontario community is evacuated annually regardless of whether it is going to flood. A dike that surrounds the community is not up to standard, so each spring when the Albany River has ice chunks come down and cold evenings there is a possibility of water rising and going over the dike. Residents at risk evacuate every spring until they know the ice is clear.
The idea to create and send evacuation backpacks to Kashechewan students arose through a special event at the St. Catharines school where every grade focused a learning on a Throughline—a discipleship concept that answers the question “How shall we now live?”
In teacher Jeff Brooks’ Grade 4 classroom, students were tasked with the Justice Seeking Throughline. The class initially looked at various water crises in First Nations communities and researched Kashechewan, a Cree reserve in northern Ontario on the Albany River near James Bay.
Mr. Brooks called the principal at St. Andrew’s School in Kashechewan, Tanya Spence, who told him drinking water is no longer an issue, but their community floods every year and perhaps the class could think of something to help in that area. Residents are evacuated for weeks at a time during the annual spring flooding.
When Mr. Brooks brought the idea to his class, the students were enthusiastic to help. They brainstormed and decided to make up an evacuation bag for every Grade 4 student at the Kashechewan school.
The class considered what items they wanted to send and formed small groups each responsible for something. The first required item was the backpack, with the desire to use high quality camping backpacks to hold the other items and be something the recipients would be proud of and be able to use for many years.
Students learned about a program at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) that takes in returned bags and donates them to charities. The students called several MEC stores to ask for donations. MEC in London, Ontario, was the first store to donate and sent 10 bags, most of which looked brand new.
“That got us excited and initiated the project because we knew even if we collected all the other stuff the bags were the central item that we needed most,” Mr. Brooks said. MEC stores from Victoria to Halifax were a huge support, donating lightly used backpacks to the cause.
“Without Mountain Equipment Co-op we would not have completed our project. They were absolutely huge to the success of it,” Mr. Brooks said.
Bekah, one of the students in the class who oversaw calling many of the stores, said the first time making a call was a “little nerve wracking,” but then it got easier.
“It’s been really fun calling a bunch of stores and telling them about our project and getting it all put together,” she said.
Individual donations helped the class purchase other items in the backpack, which included toothpaste, toothbrush and floss; a warm blanket; a knitted hat; healthy snacks; school supplies; a mini basketball and nutty putty. Another large item was The Action Bible, a graphic novel with comic-style text geared to readers aged nine to 12. Mr. Brooks has been using the Bible in his Grade 4 class and said because its in comic book form it is perfect for that age range.
Scott, a student, said his class has been reading the Bible over the past year and “students seem to really enjoy it.” Another student, Claire, said, “We included The Action Bible because if the students get bored they can read it and learn more about God at the same time.”
Initially, students started calling Christian bookstores in Southern Ontario and as far as Buffalo. Nine were donated from Christian bookstores in North York (Toronto), but as that was only a portion of the 46 needed the class started writing letters requesting donations to purchase more. A construction company where a student’s father works was the first to make a large financial donation. Others also contributed, and the class raised about $1,000 to purchase the Bibles.
Knowing the Kashechewan students miss weeks of schooling during their evacuation, the Beacon class talked about ways to include an educational item. They decided it would be more fun to learn while playing a board game, and created a game that also teaches math, science, language arts and social studies.
Students broke into groups and each group developed questions in one of the four subject areas. Making 46 board games, with 70 questions each, meant photocopying and cutting out more than 3,000 questions. They had some parent and teacher help with that part of the preparations.
The board used for the game was created by another student group. The board shows a map of Ontario, with Kashechewan as the starting point and St. Catharines as the end. Players move across the board by correctly answering the questions.
Lastly, in each backpack a student wrote a friendly letter to the Kashechewan recipient, asking questions about life in their community. They hope some connections or pen-pals may form, so the students can continue learning from one another.
Beacon hosted a Celebration of Learning event March 7, welcoming in community members to learn about the PBL each class worked on. Mr. Brooks’ class lined a hallway and answered questions while proudly showing the backpacks, board games, letters and other items that were part of their project.
Leading up to the event the class did a push to complete the backpacks, as they needed to ensure they arrived before the evacuation started. The days leading up to the event were “Project-Based Learning (PBL) every day, all day,” said Mr. Brooks.
A final logistical issue was getting the bags delivered to Kashechewan. A parent in the class who owns the trucking company Spring Creek Carriers helped arrange for the bags to be delivered to their partner company Manitoulin Transport which drove them to Timmins. Thunder Airlines agreed to fly the backpacks from Timmins to Kashechewan for free.
The project showed students that by putting in the legwork people are willing to donate and give to help with a project like this, Mr. Brooks noted.
“It’s a little thing we did, but we’re hoping it will show those kids they are loved and cared about and other people are thinking about them and wanting the best for them,” he said.
The backpacks arrived at the Kashechewan school late in the day just before Easter weekend on March 29. The elementary school has a series of 10 portables, so when the backpacks all arrived in the office portable Grade 4 students came and took a backpack back to their classroom and took them home that day.
Knowing the Beacon students were thinking about what the Kashechewan community goes through with its evacuation is heart-warming, the principal said. There is a lot of stress and anxiety among adults and children with the uncertainty of the dike holding.
“Your home is your home and that’s where our hearts are too, so it does get difficult and stressful every year,” Tanya Spence, principal of St. Andrew’s School said.
The Kashechewan students were happy to receive all the items, and teachers were also impressed with them. “It showed in the students’ faces … how appreciative we are here, and we wanted to thank them,” she said. “They appreciated all these people from down south took the time to think about them.”
When Mr. Brooks received photos showing the children receiving the backpacks he shared them with his students. “They were so excited the bags made it,” he said. “This project was such a journey and a lot of work, and it was neat for the kids to see the success we had in getting them there on time and before they have to evacuate.”
Emily, a Grade 4 student who helped with many aspects including soliciting the Bibles and making the board game, said she “felt really happy” when she found out the backpacks arrived.
The largest benefit Mr. Brooks sees to having a PBL unit focused around the justice seeking Throughline is the empathy it helped foster in students. “It shows them that we are privileged where we live and in addition to that I think it teaches them a lot of real-life skills,” Mr. Brooks said.
The project also showed students that in Canada there are needs, and through working hard positive change can happen.
“And to be the hands and feet of Jesus, that’s what we are trying to do,” Mr. Brooks said. “To show love, and to make change in even a small way like putting together the backpacks for these students.”
School embraces Throughlines in action