Stephanie Wang with kids at the Roseland Child Care Centre (photo by Ali Saeed)

Building a better Toronto: Alternative Reading Week

Students volunteer their time and expertise with community organizations

While some university students spent Reading Week hitting the books or hitting the sack, hundreds of University of Toronto students were busy hitting nails on the head – or painting murals and running science workshops for elementary school kids, as part of the Alternative Reading Week Days of Service program (ARW).

Organized annually by U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships, ARW is an intensive, project-based community service program for student leaders to explore the concepts of learning through service, leadership for social change and community development.

This year, students worked on 30 projects, the majority of them in the York South Weston community in Toronto. (Read the complete list.)

U of T News asked two students to share their experience and most memorable moments.

Stephanie Wang (pictured above) is a third-year student in Kinesiology and Physical Education who believes U of T students have a social responsibility to be aware of the challenges in the world around them. She signed up for ARW to share her passion for science, first-aid and learning through play.  

Describe what you did.
I worked on developing and implementing a program for kids aged two-and-a-half to 12. The theme was 'science and safety'. The kids participated in science experiments, first-aid skits, 'stranger danger' stories, songs, etc. The goal of the program was to inspire enthusiasm for these subjects by encouraging learning through play.

What was the most interesting thing that happened?
Although several years have gone by since I was young and Pokemon was invented, I still found a group of kids who played with Pokemon cards. Apparently, they are still ‘in’. I also found that kids still enjoy many of the childhood activities I used to like, including tag and snow fort building.

This reminded me that although my life and the life of these children were undoubtedly different, we were also the same in many ways. I think ARW is about celebrating diversity and discovering similarities. It’s about service-learning, not just volunteering. It's about recognizing that both the community and I have valuable things to share. I serve by sharing my skills and I learn from them sharing their skills.

Would you recommend the program to other students?
I strongly believe the ARW program can be of value to everyone. If you want to learn about other communities, ARW connects you to a community partner. If you want to meet other U of T students with similar interests, ARW gives you a common experience to start building a friendship. If you want to use you skills for a good cause, ARW lets you share your talents with the community. If you want to start volunteering but don't know how, ARW can be your gateway to volunteering. There's something for everyone.

But, the best reason to should sign up is because it's such a positive community for growing. 

What was the one thing you’ll never forget from this week?

My team and I worked hard on brainstorming and revising a program plan that would ultimately be a fun experience for the kids. One thing that touched my heart was the kids telling their parents,"Today was my favourite day." So many kids asked us if we could return to the school and didn't want to leave the program when their parents arrived. It was truly heart-warming to see how much they appreciated us being there. It means we accomplished our goal. My team felt the same way.

Aakanksha John (pictured second from left) is a second-year student in Diaspora and Transnational Studies, History, and Criminology, hoping to pursue a career in youth and social justice. She signed up for ARW because she wanted to gain more awareness for the issues of the city around her.

What did you do?
Our team project was called Refocus Kodak, an exciting opportunity for the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood to provide their vision for the former Kodak Lands, a 23-hectare parcel of property that has been vacant since 2005, when the Kodak manufacturing plant shut down.

We were assigned the task of launching the public and online campaign for it. We went around the community spreading the word and getting feedback about the initiatives put forth by the local community centre and newspaper to reuse the old Kodak Lands to build better buildings and increase economic activity in the area. We got ESL conversation circles, high-school basketball players, energetic seniors and even busy passer-byes on the street all pumped for the cause!

What was the most interesting thing that happened?
There were many touching moments, but one in particular stands out. When we went to the senior home to talk about our campaign, we participated enthusiastically in the seniors’ daily activities. Dancing and exercising with them, helping the kitchen serve them lunch and just talking to them, we definitely dedicated ourselves to more than just promoting a public campaign. We believed in serving this community, despite the fact that most of us are from other countries and Canadian provinces. And we were welcomed warmly because of that.

Would you recommend ARW to other students?
ARW lets you have fun while seeing selflessness in action. In three days of hard work, you can experience what the people serving these communities have been doing for over 20 years. And, through your dedication to others, you will learn about teamwork, humility, kindness and respect. Most importantly, you’ll understand and appreciate yourself and where you come from.

What was the one thing you’ll never forget from this week?
I witnessed amazing humanity, courage and resilience, not only from the people at the grassroots, but those working beside me. Their spirit and positivity only strengthened my resolve to help people.


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