September 27, 2020

BY TASHA LUNNY

Same, same but different.

That is how April-Dawn Blackwell described her inspirational trip to help a non-governmental organization in Southeast Asia.

The saying is one she heard on a past trip to Thailand. It means the general idea is similar but the details are very different. While travelling in India, this saying often came to mind.

Blackwell is a Conestoga alumnus, academic administration employee and a student pursuing her masters in business administration. Her three-week trip began with an international consulting project in which she and six other students in her program teamed up to assist an organization in India. This project led them to Dream School Foundation (DSF), a group dedicated to a cause so simple that it can be overlooked here in Canada.

“Essentially what they do is they help impoverished kids who are trying to go to school through governmental schools, not private schools, just complete their education,” Blackwell said.

In India government-run schools are only free until eighth grade. Millions of kids never get a high school education usually because their families cannot afford to send them. After the free schooling runs out earning a living becomes the No. 1 priority.

“Dream School Foundation … puts programs in place to help work with the community, the parents … and help foster that engagement with the child so they have somewhere to go after school to get tutoring or just someone to help support them going to school,” she said.

During her trip she and her peers met with charities in Vietnam and Hong Kong as well as travelled to Bangalore, India to meet the Dream School Foundation’s volunteers and founders. One of her most emotional moments came when seeing the faces of the students being helped by DSF while visiting a local school. It was the sweet harmony of young voices that quickly displayed these children’s everyday reality.

“They started singing this song … it’s about how they will overcome someday,” Blackwell said as her eyes welled up with tears. “That’s a song that these kids would actually learn because that’s the mindset they have to have.”

Blackwell describes the school as an old military base that in Canada would be condemned. The walls of the small classrooms were flaking, each window wore metal bars, benches were used as desks and one lone chalkboard would sit at the front of the crammed room. The teachers tried to brighten the classrooms by taping pictures and learning tools to the walls. Once leaving the school a thought occurred to Blackwell once again – same, same but very, very different.

“We often look at things and try and find similarities and connections but … what you expect to be the same sometimes (is) a frame of mind that you have to lose,” she said.

Blackwell spent a year living in Australia after graduating from Conestoga. This was an experience that has forever changed her views of travel, and one of her biggest encouragements to students today is to take pathways available to expand their own global perspective.

“Take every opportunity to broaden your awareness and scope of understanding because … every safe and strategic opportunity you have to go to a different country or a different classroom and meet people, take (it).”

The trip to Southeast Asia led Blackwell to consider the advantage that geography has given her. If she had been born in a different area of the world, would the same opportunities have been available to her?  She didn’t know the answer to that question, but it did make her aware of just how blessed she is. She uses that appreciation to fuel her involvement with others and encourages students to do the same.

“I have a responsibility to do something with how fortunate I am,” Blackwell said. “…. Whether people apply that in Canada, in Kitchener-Waterloo, in India (or) wherever, you will realize how humbling it is to take a small step (and see) how much you can help.”

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