“Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive” – Dali Lama
The white T-shirts are for the supporters – family, friends, colleagues, anyone who feels a desire to help. The pink T-shirts are for the survivors – those still in treatment, those finished treatment, those whose hope grows with every day and year of continuing good health. They walked, jogged, ran and cycled. They passed with smiles, with thoughtful gazes, and some with tears. And on the sidelines were our students. With smiles, water bottles, candies and dog treats, they nourished the bodies and the souls of those who travelled the route.
Our school has been supporting CIBC Run for the Cure for many years. Our girls work on the sidelines, loudly cheering on those who participate, doing our small part to make the event a success. Every year, an enthusiastic group of girls volunteers, and every year we have fun as a community.
Someone once said to me that most students volunteer simply because they have to fulfill 40 hours of community service in order to earn their Ontario diploma. I remember feeling offended (on my students’ behalf) by what I perceived to be a rather cynical view of adolescent motivation. In my experience, the majority of our students far exceed the 40 hours of service and appear to value the act of giving back. And besides, even if a student initially volunteers simply because she has to, it doesn’t mean that the value of helping others is lost on her. It’s not. In her act of giving – whether compelled or self-directed – I believe she also receives an important gift. The gift of empathy.
Humans are not born empathetic. Empathy is developed gradually through experience. A three-year-old will blurt out a comment about someone’s funny hair or big ears, not because they are cruel or rude, but simply because they do not yet understand the relationship between their words and another’s emotions. Our capacity for empathy is innate, yet we become empathetic only as we mature and are taught to see the world from different perspectives. Repeated modelling, positive encouragement and opportunities for reflection provide youngsters with the tools to become empathetic human beings.
Although humans are born with the capacity for empathy, its development is not necessarily assured. A variety of factors support or impede the growth of empathy, including one’s environment. Psychologist Mark Barnett, a professor of psychology from Kansas State University notes that, “A child whose own emotional needs are taken care of is more responsive to the emotions of others. A child who is insecure has difficulty vicariously experiencing emotions of someone else.”
School is only one environment contributing to the healthy development of a child, but it is a vitally important one. In fact, the influence of the school community on the social and emotional health of a child is well documented. In short, a positive school culture nurtures healthy, stable relationships and supports the development of a child’s positive self-concept. A toxic school environment can contribute to depression, frustration and negative behaviours. A positive school culture requires commitment from every community member, and is built slowly and deliberately through the traditions, the routines, the daily interactions, and the manners and customs that are modelled and honoured within the school.
Giving back to our community is an important part of Trafalgar’s culture. We give back because it helps others. But we also give back because it strengthens our own school culture. The act of giving models kindness, empathy, selflessness and consideration. It also demonstrates action, meaningful contribution, and the power of the individual to effect change – things we want each of our girls to experience.
We’ll be back handing out water at next year’s Run for the Cure. We’ll continue to support our community and show our care for others. And in the process, we’ll deepen the bonds of sisterhood amongst our girls and embed even more firmly our school’s culture of care.