A quiet effort to encourage children to dream – and reach for the skies when it comes to choosing a career – is placing students at a North Surrey school behind the scenes at Peace Arch Hospital.
Funded by the South Surrey-based Cmolik Foundation, and now in its seventh year, the Expanding Horizons program is “a great story” of creating opportunities young students may otherwise never experience, according to Sam le Riche, principal of Lena Shaw Elementary.
“I think the biggest thing is that… it really allows us the chance to help to close the opportunity gap,” le Riche said, noting some of her school’s students come from disadvantaged environments – homes in which post-secondary educations and even careers may never be discussed.
“We are hoping to inspire the love of learning, which leads to lifelong education.”
In a hospital tour last month, 60 Grade 5 students were introduced to careers in radiology, pathology, food services, maintenance and surgery.
The students heard from White Rock professionals who spoke of their own childhoods and the choices they made in life that carved their path to success – choices that included doing their homework and not getting involved in drugs or gang life.
The technologists, doctors and other staff who volunteered their time to the tour “became everyday people… real people,” le Riche said, calling the experience “really broadening… in terms of career opportunity (and) enables them to dream about the future and realize the future.”
The students were able to test instruments in mock surgical procedures, and they got to see firsthand what happens when a patient goes in for an X-ray.
After the tour, the students were treated to a Cirque du Soleil performance and dinner at the Salmon House in West Vancouver.
In the spring, the same students will spend a day at Boundary Bay airport, where they’ll rotate through four stations: mechanics, the control tower, going up in a helicopter or an airplane and, notably, a talk on making wise choices. That day will also include a visit to BCIT’s aviation campus and another fine-dining experience.
Foundation chair Russ Cmolik described the day’s wise-choices talk – led by a pair of Surrey firefighters who volunteer their time – as central to the whole program.
“Everything we do, I would say, the fundamental message is delivered in this one hour, of all the hours we spend with the kids,” the South Surrey philanthropist told Peace Arch News Wednesday. “It’s talking about… what is going to be your life moving forward if you take care of yourself now.”
Cmolik’s own efforts to support students’ education began officially in 2008, when his wife, Ellen, announced she wanted to “adopt” a class and expose them to opportunities that would inspire them, and she wanted to follow their progress through high school.
After various meetings with the parties involved, the idea grew to include all three Grade 5 classes at Lena Shaw – located midway between Surrey Central and Guildford shopping centres, on 100 Avenue.
Cmolik – who admitted that as the couple already led busy lives, he “wasn’t keen at all” about the idea initially – described Grade 5 as “the sweet spot” for reaching at-risk children.
“Everybody kept pointing to Grade 5,” he said. “That’s where the kids are still eager to learn, where you’re going to get your best bang for your buck… You’ve got to get in the water upstream a little further, where the currents are a little less developed.”
Le Riche agrees.
“Before Grade 6 is a pivotal time in terms of trying to keep kids off the street,” the principal said. “They’re getting to an age where the ills of society will start to creep in. It’s still an impressionable age, where we believe we can have them start to think about their future.”
Cmolik estimated the lifetime financial cost to society of a child who goes down the wrong path at $1 million. He put the gain of that same child choosing a positive path at $500,000.
“Every kid that we get on a path is a million-and-a-half-dollar win, as I see it,” he said.
To determine the effort’s effectiveness, the Cmolik Foundation also funds a long-term study, now in its seventh year. Michelle Nilson, an SFU associate professor in educational leadership, interviews the Grade 5s before their first field trip, again in the spring, and then annually through Grade 12.
Nilson told PAN that trends are now starting to emerge. For example, the hospital field trip alone is linked to a 20 per cent increase in the number of students who reported talking to their peers about future careers.
And, after the second field trip, there is a drop in the number of students who report wanting to go solely to trade school, which Nilson suggests is attributed to students developing a better understanding of what a career in the trades entails.
“But you also see an increase in the proportion of students that want to go to college or they want to go to university,” Nilson said.
“It looks like they’re quite optimistic after the field trips and just before high school.”
With the first Expanding Horizons students now in Grade 12, Nilson’s research is following approximately 700 students.
She describes witnessing their transformation over the years as “quite amazing.”
“It’s a huge honour to be able to talk to them and to see them grow up, because really, that’s what it is,” Nilson said, lauding the Cmoliks for the legacy created with Expanding Horizons.
“They both work very hard and are very proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish but also recognize that in order for it to have deeper meaning, they’ve also got to share.”
Among other initiatives, the foundation also provides scholarships to deserving students who may not otherwise have the means to attend a post-secondary institution. Recipients receive $35,000 over five years to help with the cost of books and tuition, and must report back every semester on their progress.
It’s money that initially came straight out of the Cmoliks’ own pockets, as they recognized a need among some of their own children’s friends, but it is now 50 per cent funded by community donors. There are currently 51 students registered.
“We’ve got kids in medical school now… the law, engineering…” Cmolik said, describing the impact of a child knowing there are adults who are keenly interested in seeing them succeed as “magic”.
“My wife and I grew up with wonderful families. What we didn’t have was any guidance with, what are you going to do after high school?
“We just got lucky.”
With their own children now grown, the couple keeps young vicariously through Expanding Horizons, he said.
It’s hoped the program will create a framework for the provincial government and other school districts to model.
“If one kid – one kid out of 65 – goes this path out of that path, it’s worth it.”
For more on the foundation, visit www.thecmolikfoundation.com