This article is part of Empowerment Squared’s Community Voices series, which highlights the stories, aspirations, and accomplishments of members of the Empowerment Squared community – in their own words – through interviews.
Empowerment Squared donor Colleen Court knows that many small actions can add up to big consequences. Volunteer Amy Schaefer sat down with Colleen to discuss how giving a little of ourselves can mean a lot, whether it’s coaching soccer, becoming a donor, or helping the teens in her English classes love books.
Amy: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Colleen: I think the biggest thing, if you ask someone about me, they’ll tell you I’m a reader. It seems to be how people start conversations with me, that I have an obsession with books. I’m looking at my classroom right now and every single surface is kind of covered. So the reading aspect is a big part of who I am. I’ve been married for seventeen years, and I have two kids, an eleven-year-old and an eight-year-old boy, so of course that’s a big part. And I’m a daughter and sister as well. I like to drink a lot of tea and run.
You’re the head of the English Department at Westdale Secondary School, is that right?
How did you get into teaching?
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I had an English degree. I went to graduate school, then they gave me a teaching assistant job, and I liked being a TA more than I liked being a graduate student. So then I thought: “I can do this all day.” I went to teacher’s college after, and this is my fifteenth year teaching. It’s a pretty great job.
And how did you find Empowerment Squared?
That’s actually kind of interesting. It was through a co-worker, Sharon Gordon. She came to me one day because she was volunteering with the Homework Circle, and there was a student there who was newly arrived to Canada and for some reason he couldn’t get into a school yet. She asked me for some English materials that they could use to help him practice to get in the groove of school. I gave her my email to give to Ann-Marie Anie (Manager of Educational Programming). Once Ann-Marie emailed me, I started asking questions about what the program was, and I looked up Empowerment Squared and talked to Sharon a bit more, and then I thought this seemed like something I would like to get involved in.
I started with e-movement. It was right when the pandemic hit, so they were pivoting to online, and that was a lot of fun, especially in the middle of all of that to have something like e-movement to go to.
My parents were very much about giving what you can, both time and money. I’m fortunate enough that both my husband and I are working, we don’t struggle day-to-day, and so we were able to finance donation. Once I met Keneisha Gardiner (Manager, Strategic Initiatives) and Joana Fejzaj (Manager, Community Development & Partnerships) and I saw the programs they put together for the kids I just felt like… some programs are really top-down. The people with the money telling everyone how things are going to work. But I felt like Empowerment Squared is really in touch with the community – what the community wants and needs – and I felt that would be a better use of my time and money than some other places that I might volunteer or contribute to.
So Empowerment Squared really meshed with your values.
Yes. There are so many organisations where they go in with this saviour impulse instead of the community impulse and I find Empowerment Squared is so much about community. That’s how I like to run my classroom, and also how I want to live. That just kind of fit.
Right. And I think that’s so important for all of us, and especially those of us who are privileged, we should not be the ones telling everyone what to do. These things should come up from the community and we should help as we can.
Yes. I enjoy that, like you said, that supporting role. Donating the money gives Empowerment Squared a way to do what they need to do without having to continually worry about where the funding is going to come from. Although I’m sure you still have to worry about that.
I don’t think that ever goes away.
Because you can always do more, right?
So you’ve done e-movement, soccer in the summertime–
Yes, I did soccer in the summer, and that was a ridiculous amount of fun. I was very bad at it. I used to coach my son’s soccer team, so I thought I would be alright. My level of soccer ability kind of matches the five-year-olds; it was best if I stayed with them. The first time was only about five kids, and I thought: “Oh, this will be easy,” and then the next time it was eighteen or something. Priya Goorbarry (Director, Operations and Administration) and I were trying to get them all to listen, and I’m a high school teacher, not an elementary teacher, so getting that many kids to listen was challenging. Then Ari, one of the lead soccer coaches, he could see we were desperate and came over and helped us, and he had some kind of magic and they all listened to him. It was amazing. I also liked the soccer, not only because I got to meet the kids, but also there were so many other volunteers there at the same time. The art camp runs then as well.
One of my favourite soccer moments was, while the kids were playing, some members of the community got together and they had a picnic while soccer was going on. There was food everywhere and they were all sharing it. It’s just such a nice space to be in: playing with these kids while their parents are sharing time with their friends. I liked it. It was very fun. Kids also say things that you don’t expect.
I tend to work with younger kids, and they are hilarious. They have absolutely no filters – they will tell you precisely what is on their mind.
I know! One was like: ‘My grandma is 88. She’s going to die soon.’ And I was like; ‘Oh! Ahh…’ I didn’t know what to say, but they were matter-of-fact and walked away.
In the middle of all of that, the Americans were pulling out of Afghanistan, and there was a little girl who came to practice and she started telling me everything she knew about Afghanistan. And she was really upset, because her family was there. Those are always moments when you think: this is a small thing, coaching soccer, but for a child there may be much more going on.
It’s a small entree into bigger things happening. Sometimes it’s just as important to just be there – your actual reason for being there isn’t important. Just be there and listen. That’s what kids need some days.
Yes. Seeing how resilient kids have to be with how often they have to move as their families figure out where the right place to be is, and all of that. And some of them come, and they play together outside of Empowerment Squared and that’s always nice to see, to see all of those relationships, because, you know, with the pandemic people couldn’t socialise. Empowerment Squared soccer was a place you could go where you could actually talk to some people.
When you think about it, that’s an amazing gift during COVID-19. I mean, thankfully you had that outdoor space to work in. So much interaction now is being together over Zoom.
It’s so hard for young people right now.
So you volunteer your time as well as donating what you’re able. Why did you choose Empowerment Squared in particular?
I think there’s a couple of things. They don’t have a very big staff. But the way they are able to mobilise volunteers and make people feel like they’re contributing – like the Mac student involvement – is pretty incredible. I’ve met some really incredible Mac students, and people like their summer intern, Ari, who wants to be a doctor. So you just meet all these wonderful young people who are volunteering to make other people’s lives better as they’re getting their education and probably going to do quite a bit with their lives. It’s kind of inspiring. And also, at soccer, most of the staff were there, too, volunteering their time, so you know that they believe in what they’re doing because they do so much more than ‘the job’. And I found that inspiring.
I used to volunteer a lot when I was younger. For some reason it’s always a thing that young people do, for their volunteer hours or your parents push you to do it. I used to volunteer at Good Shepherd making meals, but then I had kids and then it was difficult. But Kenisha said: “Just bring Eli.” So I also just brought Eli. After the first time I brought him he said: “Can I come back?” and I said “I dunno, we’ll see,” and he cried, he wanted to go back so badly just to be around other people. So I think it’s just the group of people are a beautiful group of people.
And I’ve also just learned so much. Ann-Marie taught me a lot about her Literacy program. I was talking to a staffer about how they go to schools and advocate for kids. We were talking about expectations, and she was talking about how sometimes teachers’ expectations are too low. So we chatted about that for a while, and that made me question my own practice. Am I asking enough? Am I assuming that they can do these things and then filling in the gaps where I can? But I think it also just really helped me professionally, too and I always like something that challenges me that way. So it’s good for me emotionally, professionally, and spiritually I think. I dunno. I just love them, and how can you not love when you meet Joana and how enthusiastic she is about everything? I mean, Empowerment Squared just kind of includes you right away, you don’t feel like an outsider.
And that goes back to bringing your son, right? Everyone gets swept up into the family of it.
Yes! Because he’s not really a candidate for the program. But she said: if that’s interfering with your ability to come, just bring him. So that was really great. And they included him in everything. They got him a t-shirt and all that stuff. It was nice.
Does he go back with you once in a while?
(nods) The first time he came with me we were doing the e-movement, and it was a big deal because it was the first time we were allowed to do it outside. Those were the ones he loved the most, because we hadn’t been in the world for quite a while. He came to a couple this summer as well. They were good. I hope to do it again this summer.
Fingers crossed! You’ve had a lot of good experiences; is there anything you’re most proud of with your time at Empowerment Squared?
Nothing that I’ve done; it’s more watching the program. Every time Empowerment Squared posts something on Instagram or they’ve reached some sort of fundraising goal, it feels like a family member has achieved something. I’m always rooting for them and watching what they’re doing next.
Empowerment Squared also provides me with a lot of different opportunities for my actual job. Joana gave me access when Ndaba Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, was here doing a talk, and I was able to share that with a ton of my teacher friends, so many students were able to listen to him because I started volunteering and had that connection to Joana.
I just got two Hamilton Community Foundation grants meant for connecting Literacy through History through the study of history and historical events related to Black, Indigenous, people of colour, Two Spirit and LGBTQIA+ and Jewish communities. Joana gave me a ton of advice, because I’ve never really written a grant before, and is helping me make connections for the speakers to come into the classroom.
That’s such a virtuous circle, everybody doing better, right?
Yes, exactly. So many kids are going to get access to speakers and books with this money. Empowerment Squared has added so much to the classroom I’m in by giving me access to all those resources.
Speaking of your classroom, people often fret about getting teenagers to read. How do you engender a love of reading in that age group?
In the last five or six years, I’ve shifted a lot to focusing on what they want to read instead of dictating everything they should read. Some of our classes still do full class novels, but it isn’t the only thing we do. We start with independent reading and we try to ramp up. We have a really great partnership with our librarian here at Westdale SS, who gets a lot of Young Adult books. We also use probably about a third of our budget for buying individual classroom books that we know students will like and be engaged in reading, and it’s amazing what happens when you have the books they are interested in reading and the books don’t look super old and torn apart. It was just written by their favourite author or something like that.
I’m teaching a grade 10 class right now and I was talking with a boy today who’s like: “I don’t really read that much,” and then he told me that when he was grade 7 he read all the Percy Jackson series, and some of the side books, and I said; “You did read, you just stopped for a little bit.” That gap between Middle Grade and Adult fiction, sometimes the kids don’t know that there’s Young Adult to fill in the gap, so that’s a pleasure to find those books.
My favourite question is always: “Ms Court, what do you think I should read?” And then I usually put a pile on their desk. Behind me in the classroom there are library cards. Every time the students finish a book they post it on the line. And that’s the only reward they kind of get, just: “hey, I finished this!” and you know, talking to the people around them.
So I think we think that getting kids to like to read is difficult, but it’s only difficult when we’re forcing them into what we want them to read.
Let them enjoy it and build the habit.
Your reading life shouldn’t be an uphill battle. It should be like a roller coaster. You try something hard, and then you do the fun dive into something you love. That’s what we try to teach them. It’s not always about reading the most challenging thing you can find, it’s just about finding what you love and reading that.
I know I don’t always read the most challenging book I can find.
To finish, do you have any words of wisdom to share with our community?
This might seem strange, but it might be the advice I gave to my sister at her wedding, which was: if you spend your day always trying to make someone else’s day better, chances are someone else is also doing that for you. You’ll be filled up by caring for someone else as someone else returns the favour to you, and if we could all do that… that’s what Empowerment Squared does, right? They pour so much of their energy into filling up other people, but in turn they’re filled up by the people who volunteer for them. I think that would be, off the top of my head, the best advice. Get up each day and figure out: whose day can I make better today?
I think that’s a great message. And it really does tie back with what Empowerment Squared does.
Just showing up for soccer makes some kid’s day better. It’s a tiny, small thing, but it’s a practical action that you can take. I think sometimes we focus so much on these massive things. And you know, I’m not super rich, so I can’t give tons of money, but if I give a little bit of what I have and I focus it on Empowerment Squared, it makes a tiny difference.
Absolutely. And all the little bits we give, whether of our time or our resources, that all can add up into something fantastic.
Amy Schaefer is a Hamilton writer and Empowerment Squared volunteer. When she isn’t teaching math and reading, you’ll find her curled up on the couch, buried under her hedgehog, her kitten, and a good book.
If you are considering a year-end gift to Empowerment Squared, please note: to receive a 2021 charitable receipt for income tax purposes, gifts may be mailed to our office, postmarked by Dec. 31, or made online or by e-transfer until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2021. For gifts of publicly traded securities, please contact Lisa-Marie Smith at 289.214.1036.