Gillis (third from left) and other Canadian students pose in front of the school they were building during their two-week international development stint in Kenya.
BALDUR — We all have convictions — things we believe strongly in, which go to forming our outlook and our personality. But how many of us take those convictions and turn them into something positive, real actions that help those less fortunate?
Baldur High School student Shayla Gillis poses with Tatao — “she was about four years old” — in the village of Sikirrar, Kenya, in August 2013. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
Two of “the Mommas” gather water that they and the students would carry back to one of Maasai homes. (SUBMITTED)
Baldur High School student Shayla Gillis is doing just that.
Following a trip to Kenya last year, the Grade 12 student is now committed to raising $10,000 to build a school in the African nation.
Part of her overall fundraiser was the "Hope for Kenya Water Walk" that Gillis organized for this past Saturday in Baldur.
However, her altruism really began several years ago, when Gillis got involved in the "Rachel’s Challenge" group at the school.
Named for 1999 Columbine High School shooting victim Rachel Scott, the non-profit organization is "dedicated to creating safe, connected school environments where learning and teaching are maximized," and "motivates and equips students to start and sustain a chain reaction of kindness and compassion that transforms schools and communities."
"The Rachel’s Challenge group began a staple in my high school career," Gillis said. "(Baldur School principal Randy) Hanson was also encouraging to the students, myself included, using our talents and showing what we could do with them.
"So with a ‘team’ of great people and positive messages, I jumped into anything that would help others and in turn would help better myself."
Then last year, Hanson and school guidance counsellor Tammy Ballingall were privy to information on the "Me to We" program, which aims to teach students the power they each hold to change the world.
The two educators were made aware of travel opportunities for young people through the program, and asked students if they would be interested in taking part.
"Mr. Hanson and Ms. Ballingall both emailed me about an opportunity to apply for a scholarship from the Potash Corp. in Saskatchewan," Gillis said. "I let the email sit there for some time before even considering it.
"Then the last day to apply came. I did it! I pushed the enter button and I applied. I thought there is no way out of all of Canada I would be picked. Boy, was I wrong."
Gillis was selected to be one of 24 students from across Canada to travel with Me to We and Free the Children to Kenya.
Selected on their community involvement and leadership skills, the young people — accompanied by three facilitators — met for the first time in Toronto, before flying to Kenya.
They were there from Aug. 16 to 31, and they were about to take the first step in changing their world.
"We emailed home from Nairobi, saying we made it, we’re safe, see you in two weeks," Gillis said. "Not another form of contact, email, phone, text was made until we landed in London, England on our flight home."
Water issues were something they learned a great deal about. In Canada, we are fortunate to have constant access to clean water with the twist of a tap. In Kenya, it’s not so easy.
"The community women — the ‘Mommas’ — took us on a traditional and daily walk in their shoes, you could say," Gillis said. "This was a very emotional day for me. We walked three miles to a source of water that I would describe as a chocolate milk colour, and this is what they carried back to their families to drink and cook with.
"I am positive that it was full of germs, parasites, and feces from the animals that also drank from there. Luckily the village that I worked with had a well, thanks to Free the Children, that the children that attended school could bring buckets to fill to bring home to their families."
Gillis’s favourite part of the trip, however, was the building of a school.
"The children were so welcoming and curious. We were there on their winter break and yet all the children came to the job site every day to talk to us and play games," she said.
"They asked us if we were married and how many kids we had. We were all from the age of 14 to 19 and thought the questions were quite funny until we realized this was, and is, their reality."
After the trip, Gillis found that returning to her "reality" was difficult. Unable to leave the experience behind, she started fundraising, with the intent of building a school for Kenya.
"My brother James and I started with a T-shirt that I designed," she said. "We are selling the white ones for $15 and the black ones for $20. The shirts have the word ‘Hope’ on them, instead of the "o" there is Africa with a tiny heart on the place where Kenya is."
The fundraiser, named "Hope for Kenya", has an ultimate goal of raising $10,000, the cost of a school, for Free the Children.
Prior to Saturday’s water walk, they had raised $1,500 through the sale of the shirts and donations.
"My vision for the water walk is to give people a glimpse into what the Mommas of Kenya and the Maasai Mara region do daily, to get water," she said.
"We will be walking a mile to our local creek to retrieve water and will then carry it back to our meeting point, where we will put into a tank so that it can be used to water the plants around our town."
Jugs of varying sizes — four litre, two litre and one litre — were available, and even if people didn’t feel able to carry water, Gillis encouraged everyone to get involved.
"I am blessed to live where I live, and I believe that it is my responsibility to help people where ever and when ever I can," she said. "Showing my experience and encouraging people to ‘be the change’, it starts with one!"
For more information or to help out with Gillis’s Hope for Kenya campaign, contact her at email@example.com.
» Baldur-Glenboro Gazette
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 27, 2014