Students meet the noon-hour challenge of creating a castle using cards.


Students meet the noon-hour challenge of creating a castle using cards.

June 3, 2013

Hanging on the wall of principal Greg Hall's office are T-shirts depicting past Grade 12 service projects – team uniforms of sorts.

Every year the students at Red Deer's Notre Dame Catholic High School raise money for a worthy charity. In past years, about $23,000 was raised for War Child Canada, $35,000 for Street Ties Youth Outreach, $50,000 for Ronald McDonald House, and last year about $40,000 for KidSport.

Hall said that due to extremely generous benefactors, this year's fundraising total may never be duplicated. The students have already brought in $140,000, far exceeding any year prior, with money still coming in.

Meagan Gabert, a Grade 11 student, said that apart from graduation, this is the students' last hurrah for being together and working collaboratively to make positive change in the community.

The Grade 12 class decided in October 2012 to take up the challenge of a service project towards supporting Suicide Information & Education Services, a non-profit organization that offers information, education, and referral services.

Unknown to them at the time was how close to home their choice of charities would be. The city suffered five suicides in eight months, including a student at their own school in February.

"For us, it's incredible to see that the students have shown so much courage in supporting a cause that is full of fear and stigma. That's been one of the biggest things for us - trying to raise awareness and break the stigma," said Laura MacNeill, executive director at Suicide Information & Education Services.

"It's a huge step for our community because we finally have people talking about suicide, whereas we've always been a very quiet organization. Now this past year there's been so much attention drawn to us."

MacNeill said Red Deer's future is bright with this group of graduating students. The hard work they have demonstrated will pay off for years to come. All money raised will go towards enhancing the organization's existing services and programming.

"The community of Red Deer really got involved because they're recognizing that suicide is a significant issue, and our community needs to be part of the solution," said Hall.


The grad class had shirts printed with the slogan, "Race for your life!"

One of the students' fun tasks was to tape a teacher to a wall.


One of the students' fun tasks was to tape a teacher to a wall.

As a team-building exercise, the students participated in a scavenger hunt. The collection list involved items that pertain to personal well-being or suicide prevention. They needed to find such items as a flashlight to light the way during dark times, a compass to point them in the right direction, and a glove to symbolize the helping hand they extend to others.

"It really helps rally the city of Red Deer. Yes, it's Notre Dame High School, but we involve the whole city," said Hall.

The local food bank, which wasn't supposed to be open the day of the scavenger hunt, opened specifically to accommodate it. Likewise, the city's public transit system allowed the students to ride for free that day.

Throughout the project, the students have stepped out of their comfort zones. For instance, since loneliness is a contributing factor to suicide, a challenge for student Maryanne Vo's team, The Lifesavers, was to sit with a stranger who was alone in a restaurant.

"We went to a café downtown, and we met Steve and asked if we could sit down and talk to him. He asked us what we were doing, so we told him it was for a grad service project, to bring awareness about suicide, and how Red Deer is a huge target for suicide," said Vo.

Vo quickly learned, ironically enough, that Steve was a suicide prevention counselor.


The students also learned the awful reality of suicide. They learned that there were 472 deaths by suicide in Alberta in 2007. That same year, there were an estimated 51,900 suicide attempts.

"Suicide is a personal and touchy subject, but it's been very good to create awareness about it," said student Carissa Brandon.

In a typical year, about 150 students participate in the Grade 12 service project. This year, 304 students, along with 28 volunteers, formed 38 teams to raise money.

Every team had a goal to raise a minimum of $2,000. Among the fundraisers that teams chose were bake sales, a charity hockey game, throwing pies at teachers, and pledges from family and friends. Some teams brought in more than $20,000.


Yet to come is a Clayton Bellamy fundraising concert. Bellamy, who hails from Bonnyville, is a country singer and a founding member of the Road Hammers. When he learned what the students were raising money for, he agreed to do a benefit concert in Red Deer.

"This is a good cause, so let's do something to change the world," said Hall. "As a high school principal, that's what we want our kids to know – that they have the capacity to change the world. These kids are doing that."

The school's event coordinator, Shannon Nivens, oversees the annual service project.

"Suicide has impacted this grad class this year," said Nivens. "Red Deer is a city, but it's still a really tight community, so anything like that really impacts the whole community. There was one (suicide) in our class, but in other schools as well."

Nivens said it's great to see this age group getting involved in suicide prevention, and seeing the impact they are having, both financially as well as through their volunteer efforts.


Every day, lunch hour involved various challenges with a suicide prevention theme for the teams to complete. One day was all about finding balance, so their challenge was to balance eight nuts on chopsticks.

Based on the adage, "When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade," students had 10 minutes to make lemonade from ingredients provided to them.

They made suicide prevention videos. To emphasize the importance of listening carefully to one's friends, they played a giant game of Simon Says. Being fragile, supporting each other, and building a strong foundation, they built houses out of playing cards.

"I got involved because I not only enjoy being involved, but the cause this year hit home for most of us here," said student Evan Macleod. "I felt this was a great way to make a difference in our school and our community.

"It brought this group of students together, and it helped in the healing process as well."