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Students encouraged to follow Empowerment Day theme: ‘One day or day one? You decide’

Empowerment - The 2018 Empowerment Day, hosted by the Drayton Heights Public School student council, was held on May 3 at the Sleeman Centre in Guelph. Guest speakers included gymnast and aerialist Jen Bricker, left, and Canadian musician Serena Ryder. More the 5,000 Grade 5 to 8 students were in attendance from the Upper Grand District School Board.  Photos by Jaime Myslik

Students encouraged to follow Empowerment Day theme: ‘One day or day one? You decide’

by Jaime Myslik

GUELPH - “You can still get to the end goal, even if it looks different from another person.”

Jen Bricker, a gymnast and aerialist born with no legs and her heart on the opposite side in her chest, inspired students to never give up and to “think I can,” just like The Little Engine That Could.

Bricker was one of four speakers at the Upper Grand District School Board’s 2018 Empowerment Day on May 3 at the Sleeman Centre in Guelph. The other speakers  included former child soldier Michel Chikwanine, filmmaker Mike Downie and surprise mystery guest Serena Ryder, who had the entire crowd up on their feet dancing and singing along.

Empowerment Day began in 2015 as a passion project of two Drayton Heights Public School students.

The first year there were 1,300 Grade 6 to 8 students at PMD arena in Drayton. In 2016 there were over 3,000 students at the Fergus sportsplex and last year the event moved to the Sleeman Centre for the first time and hosted 5,000 students.

This year, Empowerment Day was once again held at the Sleeman Centre in Guelph and was organized by the 40 members of the Drayton Heights student council.

“It’s an amazing day,” said student council member Emma Gillespie. “There’s so many people here, it’s such an amazing opportunity to inspire other students.”

She said the day was important for students because it teaches them about different types of life struggles.

“By having these inspiring speakers coming and musicians, it’s just a day to have fun and learn about other people,” she said.

The 2018 Empowerment Day theme “One day or day one? You decide,” seems to reflect Jen Bricker’s life.

The 30-year-old athlete, born with no legs, was left at the hospital when she was born, put up for adoption and given no name.

But she told the 5,000 Grade 5 to 8 students at Empowerment Day those events were the biggest blessings of her life.

“There were 299 couples - not people, couples - on a waiting list to adopt me when I was a baby,” she said. “That’s 299 different future Jen Brickers; different ways I see the world, different ways that I see myself; certainly different ways I see everybody in this audience.

“I can pretty much guarantee you I wouldn’t be here right now had I not been left at the hospital and adopted by the most unlikely people, living in the middle of nowhere in southern Illinois, in the middle of the United States, in a cornfield.”

She said her parents always raised her to have confidence and self-esteem.

Even when she started school, they didn’t want her treated any differently than able-bodied children.

Bricker’s school was four storeys high with no elevator.

“I would just kind of leave my (wheel) chair at the bottom of the stairs and go up the stairs with everybody else,” she said.

However, the school gave Bricker an aide who would help carry her bag and navigate the busy hallways between classes. The aide was meant to make Bricker’s life easier, but that’s not how she saw it.

“I couldn’t even leave the classroom by myself, just to even go to the bathroom, without having this lady attached to my hip,” Bricker said.

“And I’ve always been little miss independent, my parents raised me that way.

“There was never anything modified in the house, my wheelchair wasn’t even in the house growing up, so everything was completely normal, if you will, and now I’m at school, and they’re trying to make me basically dependent on this aide.”

Bricker’s parents went to the school and asked the administration to stop.

“They said, ‘Listen, we’re raising our daughter to be independent, not co-dependent and you having the aide here, it’s messing that whole thing up ... She’s going to figure out how to take her own bag up the stairs. She’s going to figure out how to not get her fingers stepped on, and everybody is going to figure out together how to make it work,’” Bricker explained.

It was that interaction, she said, that made her see the power of the saying “actions speak louder than words.”

“Because they backed their words up with actions, that’s where the strength came in, that’s where the life-lesson came in,” she said.

“And I think that’s something that has carried with me into decisions as an adult, into being independent, knowing when to stand up for myself when it’s right, and how to do it with grace and kindness, while still making sure that I’m independent and figuring it out.”

Bricker played all kinds of sports, modifying her actions to work for her. In volleyball, she played in the middle back so she could easily save low balls from touching the ground. In baseball, she hardly had a strike zone and because she was so fast she had no trouble getting on base when she had a good hit.

“So ... I had to ... do it a little differently than somebody else but the end result was the same,” she said. “And we all go through that right?

“We all have things, every single day and you’re going to be different than the person next to you, or behind you, or in front of you.”

She said it’s the choices each individual makes that shape their future.

“If we can pay attention every day to the choices that we’re making ... and be aware that the littlest choices can change someone’s life,” she said. “That’s real.”

Michel Chikwanine, another speaker, talked about the choices he made throughout his life. He is a former child soldier, who at the age of five was kidnapped from his school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, blindfolded, given drugs and forced to shoot and kill his best friend. After just two weeks Chikwanine found a way to escape and returned to his family after three days living alone in the jungle.

“I can never describe to you how hard it is to tell that story,” he told the students. “How hard it is to stand up and tell people ... I’ve never even met one of the most difficult and the most heartbreaking experiences of what a human being can go through.” He said he doesn’t tell the story for people to feel sorry for him or to pity him.

“I tell the story because I know in my heart, when I look around the world, people are going through experiences even worse than what I did when I was a kid,” he said. “And if I can go through an experience and come out of it, I have the ability to make an impact, create change for many people who are going through similar experience all over the world.

“So my story is not very unique, in fact in the world today there are 205,000 child soldiers fighting the many conflicts that go on around the world.”

He said his goal is to put an end to children being used as soldiers.

“I don’t want other children to go through the experiences I’ve been through, but ... standing up for something is incredibly difficult, it’s hard,” Chikwanine said. “If you see somebody getting bullied at school it’s not easy to go on and stand up to them.

“It’s not an easy experience to go and change the world, to make an impact, but everyone has to because if we don’t, who else will?”

Chikwanine explained to students the value of being curious and humble enough to always be learning.

“Always ask the question why?” Chikwanine said.

He also encouraged students to travel the world.

“[It] will get you to see the world in a very different light and I don’t mean to just go and volunteer around the world, I mean to just travel and see the world,” he said. “That’s what will make you great leaders as you move forward.”

Filmmaker Mike Downie, older brother of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, spoke about the brothers’ project Secret Path, which tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy who died in 1966 after escaping a residential school.

“We got things really wrong in this country for a long time,” Downie said. “150 years of residential schools, of treating Indigenous lives as second class citizens.

“My brother believed in this county, he really did.”

He said Gord created a soft patriotism through his music, “And then in the last two years of his life, he kind of flipped the table and said ‘we have a reputation for being the good guys but it’s not the whole picture, we’ve got some work to do,’” Downie said.

“We have to create a more inclusive and equitable country. Don’t forget this little guy (Wenjack), he’s one of thousands who just like you went off to school, he’d done nothing wrong, but just like thousands of others he never got to go home.”

After a musical performance, artist Serena Ryder spoke to students about the inspiration behind her music and her struggles with mental health.

“There’s kind of similarity of that fear as we get older if you’re suffering from depression, which I do sometimes or anxiety, that music or art can really help to lift your emotions,” Ryder said.

She also spoke about the need to talk about mental health struggles.

“For me, holding anything inside is making me feel uncomfortable and making me feel sick or bad, just makes it worse,” Ryder said.

“Talking about it is the first step, especially about mental health issues, how you’re feeling ... affects your entire life and affects how you interact with other people ... your success, your failures and there are people out there that can relate to you and help you.”

She said talking about it has been a big part of her own healing process, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“You have to believe that you can change someone’s life,” Jen Bricker said. “You have to believe that you bring something to the table.

“You are significant, you do matter and what you have with your gift and talents and abilities, they matter and they matter equally.”

May 11, 2018


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