Pathways to Education: A Tutor’s Journey

Over the past two years, I have found myself in a room full of high school students, trying to remember trigonometry (SOHCAHTOA!), explaining artificial insemination to a blushing young girl, reviewing the intricacies of cellular division, helping to research Pathways 3racial discrimination in Canada, using rudimentary sign language with English-language-learners, and cringing when I hear the words “Shakespeare” and “comparative essay” in the same sentence.


I have been volunteering as a tutor at Pathways to Education, Kitchener, a program offered locally through Carizon Family and Community Services. And, while it may sound like I’m spouting platitudes, every evening I go, I come away feeling that I’ve learned more from the students I was working with, than they have from me. It is the most rewarding volunteer experience I have had.

Pathways operates in eighteen locations across Canada, providing an array of supports to high school students in low-income neighbourhoods, and improving their chances for academic and life success. The website states: “The Pathways Program works within a community, alongside the local school system, to provide academic, financial, social, and one-on-one supports to address the barriers that youth can face to education.”

Now, I could try to write this post to focus on how Pathways benefits students, but it would be a little presumptuous. I can’t claim to know another person’s experience. I can, however, point you to this summary of the effectiveness of the program: 2016 Statistics. PPathways 5athways increases graduation rates in targeted neighbourhoods by an average of 85%, and has significantly increased the number of students who proceed to college or university. There are beautiful stories and testimonials that are not difficult to find online. But, I thought it might be interesting to add that the benefits extend beyond the students.

When I joined, I was considering pursuing a degree in social work, and seeking opportunities to get involved in a relevant organization to make sure it was a good fit. The volunteer coordinator suggested that I work as a tutor.

To be honest, I was intimidated at the beginning. My experiences with teenagers had pretty much ended when I ceased to be one. It was an awkward time of life for this bookish nerd, and I wouldn’t wish to revisit it myself. But, as an adult, it didn’t take long to be comfortable and the staff and other volunteers were friendly and helpful.

Pathways can be challenging on a variety of levels, both academically and socially. From trying to remember how to find the equation for a line, to editing essays about books I have never read, I find that each session presents a unique academic challenge. But, I Pathways 4have also been learning how to navigate more complex social issues such as social media dependence, language barriers, and apathy towards learning. I realized I didn’t have to be an expert in everything, but present an enthusiastic and open attitude towards learning and nudge the students to find their way.

In my role as a tutor, I have worked with a wide array of students. Many come from different religions, cultures, and countries which are vastly different from my own. Even the local teenage culture in itself is foreign to me by more than a couple of years. Many Pathways 2of the students have faced and are overcoming challenges in their own lives that I can only begin to understand. While we work together on biology labs, math problems, English essays or history assignments, we laugh together and share small pieces of our lives. In so doing, each of us improves our understanding of the world.

If you are looking for somewhere to volunteer or donate, I can highly recommend this organization. As a volunteer, I actually feel I am making a difference, and the staff and students are genuinely appreciative. And, now that I can better understand the challenges and rewards of working directly with people, I have enrolled in a Master of Social Work program. Thank you Pathways!

For more information, please visit:




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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

A beautiful spring day! Perfect for learning to ride your first two wheeler! IMG_2133We live on a steep hill, so my husband and I take the kids out to find a good spot. Down the block and around the corner, we find an empty visitor parking lot. No cars, flat paved surface, no people to disturb (as the closest house is probably 100m away and around a corner). Perfect! Here we go…..

A car drives past and rolls down the window.

“You can’t be here.”

“Sorry, what? Are we disturbing someone?”

“This is a private community. You have to leave.”

They go.

Husband and I look at each other.

There are no gates, just a small sign stating “private property” that we didn’t notice at the entrance. He tries ringing a doorbell at the nearest house in this “community” but gets the same response from the resident. “You may not use the empty visitor lot.” We weren’t making noise. We weren’t doing anything dangerous, or illegal, or even the least bit controversial.

They then ask my husband: “What if I wanted to come and ride my bike on your driveway?” His response is….”Sure! It’s covered in chalk right now as all of the neighbourhood kids have been drawing on it. Come on over! I’ll get you a beer!”

But, we end up using a nearby slanted, gravel parking lot with a few cars. (where, of course, I trip over the bike and fill MY palms with gravel. Kid fares better fortunately.)

Yes, Yes, I can hear you. I get it.




Private Property.


Alright alright…. fine. That is technically private property, apparently, so let’s look at public spaces.

Here’s a fairly new sign for a city-owned field.


Yes, read closely, it does indeed say:

NO food or beverages allowed.

NO chewing gum, sunflower seeds or nuts.

How about this one:


The no-smoking I get. That affects other people. (Second hand smoke and all.)

But Unauthorized field use is prohibited??

Similar signs adorn all the local playing fields in the area. Here’s my son breaking the rule.


What does that even mean? Who is it meant for?

What if….

I want to toss a ball back and forth with my children?

I want to fly a kite on the field?

Clearly, if groups have booked the field, they get first dibs….but what about when they’re empty?

Lots of people have said to me: “Just use the field! No one really cares!”

But consider this….my children are always with me. They read the sign. Do THEY get to disregard all signs? Which rules should they follow and which are good to ignore? How do they know which are reasonable? Are stop signs just suggestions? What about wheelchair accessible parking spot signs? What about this one:


Hiking is a potentially dangerous activity which could result in death? Holy smokes! Why didn’t anyone warn me? I think my parents were trying to kill me! Good thing there was this sign!!

So, in conclusion, children and their parents are not welcome in deserted parking lots, empty public fields are only for authorized use (and you can’t bring snacks anyway) and the woods are clearly going to kill you. I guess the kids can go to the one nearby playground (but only if they’re between the designated ages as stated on the play structure).

Perhaps they should all go back inside and play video games. Right? Right??

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Apples or iPads? Inequality and Fundraising in Schools


Backpack Surprises

When I open up my child’s backpack, there are many things I don’t like to find. Used fundraise backpackKleenex, punctured containers of yogurt, and an open water bottle next to a library book, are some good examples. Those things, however, can be easily resolved.

But this week, my newest after-school gift came in the form of … yet another school fundraising package. So, I found myself staring at a Dance-A-Thon envelope and wondering what to do. Now, if you’ve read my recent post on charity fundraising birthday parties, you might be confused. “Surely, she should be happy to donate money to the school, and teach the kids about making a contribution in the process!” Nope. She’s going to write a rant-y blog post instead.

The Problem

The problem is, my children attend school in a high-income neighbourhood and the Dance-A-Thon money goes directly to supporting projects at their school. There is no common pool for all of the fundraising money to help those schools who desperately need basic resources. As a result, we get Smart Boards in every room, expensive, designer “learning tafundraise ipad-1126136_640bles” and class iPad sets, while other schools struggle to find money for basic nutrition programs or field trips.

It’s not difficult to understand what is happening. Fundraising efforts in well-off neighbourhoods see parents handing over fists of cash, and competing to volunteer their time for field trips or breakfast programs, while parents elsewhere simply don’t have the time or resources.

Under Pressure

The pressure tactics take many forms. For example, some fundraisers only allow children to participate in an activity if they contribute a minimum amount to the fundraiser. And, we are all familiar with those beloved organizations that offer cheap toys or draw entries to reward children for their fundraising efforts.

In Grade 1, my son was taken to the Book Sale fundraiser, where he was asked to select a fundraise hand-506754_640list of books he wanted, and then write down their names and prices to take home so I could “choose” to buy them if I wanted.

There’s no pressure quite like the fear of having your child stigmatized for your stinginess! Fortunately, from what I can tell, this particular dance event does not appear to have any of those kinds of strings attached. I do appreciate that certain fundraising teams are attempting to create a more inclusive atmosphere.

Meanwhile, school fundraising is increasing inequality in schools

This article, from the Toronto star, describes the problem:

As fundraising gap grows, Toronto’s wealthy schools leaving poor schools behind.

Also, a 2013 report by the Ontario organization, “People For Education,” makes the following observations:

  • The top 10% of fundraising schools in Ontario raise as much as the bottom 81%.
  • High income elementary schools fundraise at five times the rate of low income schools.

Why does this matter?

When children have access to enrichment activities, field trips, and superior resources and facilities, there are better learning outcomes. The inequality in fundraising deepens the fundraise earthquake-1665892_640.jpgfissure that already exists between schools in have- and have-not neighbourhoods and makes glaringly obvious the polarized experiences for the children who attend them.

Furthermore, the children in the low-income schools are less likely to get educational resources and experiences from home, and actually need educational enhancements in their schools MORE than children in wealthier neighbourhoods.

Check out this brilliant comic that explains privilege. 

But, I’m not convinced that many parents are aware this is going on. Many make the assumption that all schools in our region provide roughly equal experiences. This is not the case.

The Solution

So, I ask one simple question:

Why don’t we have a central fundraising pool to help schools who truly need the funds, and equalize educational opportunities between all students?

Or, do we really live in a community where parents aren’t willing to donate money if they can’t see the direct results in the form of iPads in their own children’s hands?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against raising money for charities and increasing empathy in schools. I’m happy to support the Terry Fox Run, and the wonderful work that has been done through the Me to We program. Teaching children about charity is absolutely essential, and something we focus on a great deal at home. (Please see my posts on charity birthdays….here and here.) But, we must be mindful of our actions and determine how we can actually make the most difference.

And so, Dance-A-Thon envelope, despite your request for a minimum of $20 per child, you will remain empty. I will, instead, attach a note about my donation to another fund, one that hopefully distributes money based on real need.

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The Right Stuff

IMG_20140106_154109It started with a knitted pale pink hat with a pompom. How I hated that stupid pink pompom. On top of that, NO ONE wore hats at school, and especially not homemade pink ones with pompoms. They all wore earmuffs or headbands from Zellers. I ripped that thing off as soon as I could, and let my ears freeze before I’d let anyone see me wearing that handmade monstrosity.

And snowpants? Well, as soon as it was up to me, those were gone too. I don’t think I donned a pair at any point between my early teen years and my mid thirties. Who would be caught dead wearing snowpants?

backpackAnd my backpack? Well, that obviously had to be worn slung over one shoulder. It didn’t matter how many heavy textbooks were crammed in there, a two-shouldered backpack carry was simply not acceptable, not in my school (or at least not in my interpretation of the “rules” of teenage image preservation.)

As a nerdy, fashion-backward child and teen (oh fine, adult too), I struggled to fit in. But certain things appeared to be bare minimum standards which I had to follow in order to avoid excessive teasing. Who knows why these particular rules were established, and where they started?

—Fast forward twenty years—-IMG_20140116_104542

I have been taking my older son to school for six years now, and my younger for one. It is a twenty-minute walk, and sometimes twenty five or thirty when walking with the tiny, whiny one. Living in Canada, our temperatures can reach -35C with windchill some days. Needless to say, jeans don’t cut it. My children have always been properly equipped with full snowsuits, hats, mitts, neck warmers and boots. They’re too small to fight me on these details.

I, on the other hand, had been freezing my tail off for years, when I finally noticed:

Another mother at the school.

A bastion of common sense in a sea of nylons and skinny jeans.

A mom wearing snowpants.

Thank you, snowpants mom.


Now I have warm snowpants, an assortment of knitted hats (I still don’t like pink, but I do recognize that pompoms are quite popular now), and, when necessary, a backpack firmly secured on both shoulders (thank you very much). It took twenty years. Twenty stupid, stubborn years.

As I started thinking about writing this post this morning, ice covered the ground in a slick dark sheet, cancelling all school bus routes. (At the moment, I’m watching a car outside my window spinning its tires and sliding backwards down the street.) So this morning, I pulled on my sensible outdoor gear, and I added a pair of Yaktrax to my boots (which my mother had bought for my husband a few years ago but we had promptly forgotten in the closet). I clomped confidently past all the stumbling, slipping and tumbling parents and kids. (No, seriously…you need a pair of these: Thank you, mom.

Without proper attire in cold or wet or slippery weather, walking to school can be downright unpleasant.

But really, all you need is the right stuff!

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing” – Alfred Wainwright

Also, please share with me (in the comments below) any ridiculous fashion rules from your youth. We can all laugh at ourselves together.


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“No gifts please!” Tips for hosting (and attending) charity birthday parties

When I was a teenager, my mother decided that one of our Christmas gifts would be a goat goatfor a family in Africa. I admit, at the time, I may not have been as excited as I could (or should) have been. However, the idea grew on me.  My husband and I asked for charitable donations in lieu of wedding gifts, and now, with two kids, our birthday party invitations contain the phrase:  “No gifts please. We hope you will consider making a donation to the following charity.”

There is a growing trend of “charity” birthday parties for children (and adults). There has been some debate about whether this takes the fun away from children (maybe it’s time to redefine “fun”), whether children can handle it (they can), and whether this request is tacky (isn’t the expectation of the pile of gifts tacky?).

giftsLook, I know this post might sound a bit preachy, but I’ve heard too many people say they’d like to do this but can’t figure out how it would work or whether their kids could handle it. So, given this growing trend, and the growing mountain of toys and shrinking storage space faced by many families today, here are some tips if you are considering a charity party as an option:


For host parents:

  1. Involve the child in researching and choosing the charity if they are old enough. Don’t underestimate their ability to care or understand!
  1. Consider having the party somewhere related to the charitable request. It makes it more tangible.(For example, many nature centres host birthdays, and you could raise money for conservation. We had one at the humane society.)
  1. If you think guests would still like to bring something, perhaps they could bring books, toys or food to be directly donated to a local charity instead.
  1. Be prepared for confusion. For many, this is a new idea, and kids sometimes go to a dozen parties a year, all with piles of gifts. Just keep repeating yourself.
  1. If someone DOES bring a gift, have your child open it quietly and away from the other guests, so no one feels badly for not bringing something.
  1. Try to select a charity that isn’t controversial or offer more than one choice. (For example, a secular charity may appeal to a more diverse range of families.)
  1. If you have a child who actually volunteers to do this on their own without your suggestion, I salute you. You have superior parenting skills. Please share your secrets! On the other hand, typical children might be a bit resistant to the idea. We didn’t find it was a big issue since we started doing this from a very young age. But, just imagine if this became the norm! The expectations could change altogether.
  1. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. We request charity donations from friends but have gifts from family (at a separate gathering). For people with large extended families, this makes a lot of sense.
  1. Of course you can still do traditional birthday things, like pizza, cake, rock climbing,
    mini-golf, movies, games, Quidditch tournaments or crafts. But, be prepared with cakeextra activities. Most parties leave a long stretch of time for gift-opening. If you are having this party away from your home, make sure the party planners (at the bowling alley for example) know what you are doing ahead of time.
  1. Congratulate your child on their maturity and emphasize how they are making a difference in the world. (If possible, contact the charity to let them know about the party. Sometimes, they will send a card to thank the child, or even put their picture in a newsletter.)

For attendee parents:

  1. Under no circumstances should you bring a gift (no, not even a small one) when thiscard request is on the invitation. This WILL make other children feel badly, and puts the host parents in an extremely awkward situation.
  1. It is a great idea to give the birthday child a card (possibly homemade?) that indicates that you have made a donation in their honour. Many charities provide e-notifications or cards for this purpose. At the very least, please let the child know that you have made a donation.                                                                                
  2. Please understand that the “no gifts” request is not an insult or a comment aimed at your family’s choices. This is a personal choice made by the family involved. It has nothing to do with your child’s party. You are not being judged.
  1. If possible, make sure your child understands what is going on and won’t be asking where all the presents are (loudly and repeatedly).
  1. You are always free to select a different charity, or to not donate at all. This is fine.
  1. Seriously. Don’t bring a gift.


After doing this for a few years, many of our friends are catching on, and I’m doing less explaining. Our older child is excited to select a charity, and everyone has a great time. I’d love to see this idea become more popular.

If you have done something similar, I’d love to hear from you!

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November 9th To-Do List: When Bad Things Happen

This election got under my skin and I didn’t handle it well.

So, I’m going to write a to-do list for myself for today and the days to follow.

My to-do list:

  1. Meditate – Focusing on breath (something I have control over) is calming in stressful times. A little loving-kindness meditation couldn’t hurt today either. (Whether or not you believe in any sort of supernatural power behind this practice, it is healthy for the meditator to focus attention through that lens.)dsc08930
  2. Find a green space – Green spaces are healing. Research on stress demonstrates profound benefits of nature time. Most importantly, green spaces remind me of the interconnectedness of all species, and my role on earth.
  3. Accept impermanence – Everything changes. Accepting that fact is the path to peace.
  4. Acknowledge the complexity in politics – With some help, I came to understand that we only see a tiny fraction of the actual, established political operating system. Keeping perspective here means that I don’t really understand all of the forces at play. I can’t predict the future, or use historical events to assume an inevitable outcome.
  5. Don’t let Trump win twice – Donald Trump won the election last night, but he also beat me. He got into my head, and he made me afraid. That was his plan all along (although I THINK he wanted people to be afraid of other races and religions and not of him, I’m not entirely sure at this point). Fear is the path to the dark side.
  6. Remember that the medium is the message – Social networking and constant media coverage now shapes our relationships with the big issues. I must be careful about how I am being manipulated.
  7. Be mindful of the children – Children hear everything, and they internalize our fear. While I think they should be appropriately informed about issues, they often don’t have the capability to process what is going on. We can be matter-of-fact without getting all apocalyptic.
  8. Have compassion – The right and the left wings both belong to the same bird. Every person who voted had a reason for what they did. It appears the public felt a need for change and that this was their only option. Try to account for the forces that led them to this unfortunate conclusion.
  9. Focus on positive actions – When it comes to a number of issues, the path ahead appears to be somewhat steeper, so it is time to dig in for the climb.
  10. Be grateful – I am incredibly privileged to live in the time and place that I do. I do not want to forget that. As a Canadian, I am grateful to have a leader right now that shares many of my values, but human rights violations around the world hurt all of humanity, regardless of borders.

Last night was a very long, sleepless, panic-stricken one, but, the sun rose, the cats walked across my face, the kids bickered at the breakfast table, and the newspaper, shockingly, had multiple other stories that didn’t focus on US politics.  Breathe in. Breathe out.

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Bad things come in big packages: Part 2

On the way home from a doctor’s appointment this morning, I found myself stuck in quite a jam at a roundabout. Then I remembered, Costco opens today.

For those of you who don’t regularly read my blog, please take a look at this post.                 Bad things come in big packages: The real costs of Costco

I get it. Most people love Costco. Obviously people like to save money. Sometimes, there are limited other options because the big stores have eliminated them. But, when you step back and look at the bigger picture, there are so many other costs to big box stores that were never considered.

I wrote this post two and a half years ago, when the store was still up for debate.  Now, I knew at the time that there was no stopping Costco, but I had hoped at least there would be SOME discussion that would take place among our politicians and in our community.

Perhaps we could have had some discussion about:

– Economic costs and the risks to small business

– Environmental costs

– Social and cultural costs

– Health and safety costs

(Please see linked article for my full discussion of these issues).


The ONLY discussion I heard in this community was over the traffic. But, those concerns were supposedly adequately addressed to the satisfaction of Council, and the Costco moved forward quickly.

So, it was with a heavy heart that I watched the cars inch through that roundabout, drivers carrying wallets full of dollars that they will use to vote for the direction of our community. Now, I’m far from perfect in my spending habits, and you could say I have no right to throw stones, but I’m still putting this out there, also as a reminder to myself. There may be one big election in the US today, but make no mistake, we are voting in a very significant way, every single time we pull out our credit cards.


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