A new program combining character development with Horizons is connecting 148 Upper Canada College Grade 8 boys with developmentally delayed students from three inner-city Toronto District School Board schools.
The program began this fall and, by the time it concludes next year, each UCC Grade 8 student will have spent time with kids from Grades 1 through 6 for lunch, relationship-building and a variety of activities.
“It’s a pilot year and we’re seeing how it works out,” says Jyoti Sehgal, the director of UCC’s Horizons program, a community service initiative that provides a unique partnership connecting UCC with several publicly funded inner-city schools.
It appears to be going well so far. The UCC boys had an orientation session earlier this fall where there were discussions about what they might encounter and how to work and communicate with younger students in ways they may not be familiar with. Donna Koffman, author of the book Different Kinds of Special, spoke with the boys about her experiences with her autistic grandson and answered questions.
The young students the boys are connecting with on almost a one-to-one basis have a range of developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, verbal and processing limitations. One of them has a full-time personal care helper.
“The boys are learning about empathy and learning differences and are connecting to the broader community and younger students,” says Sehgal. “They’re really gentle with the kids and are quite lovely.”
Sehgal and Upper School character integrator Craig Parkinson ran similar but separate programs last year, but are now working together on this initiative and Sehgal says “there was lots of learning for all of us.”
The first two visits between the groups took place at UCC’s William P. Wilder ’40 Arena & Sports Complex, and Sehgal says it was “incredibly special to watch” the interaction between the UCC students and their TDSB counterparts.
“The boys helped them with everything, from selecting their food since lunch is part of it, and helping them eat and talking about recycling and manners. They were helping them tie their shoelaces. There were lots of high-fives and hugs.”
The kids went bowling on Dec. 8 and a group of seniors at the lanes seemed to initially resent what they saw as an incursion into their space, but Sehgal says their opinions soon changed once they saw what was taking place.
“By the end, they were all over it and saying that we were doing such good work and that we can come out any time. A 92-year-old woman said, ‘Our future generations are doing great work.’ It was really sweet.”