Woman on a mission

Skills: Writing

Originally published in illuminate magazine
November 25, 2015

Anike Bult was 10 years old when his parents were killed by soldiers in the Congo. He spent the next five years of his life homeless and fighting to survive. Some days, he was forced to get by on a single dollar. Others, he had to chop down trees by hand and burn them for charcoal to sell on the roadside, just so he could afford to eat.

In 2009, Bult was contacted by his uncle, who helped him escape his homeland. After three years in a Zimbabwean refugee camp, he journeyed across the Atlantic to reach safe harbour in Québec.

Since last year, he’s been a student at Centre High in downtown Edmonton, where he’s worked with Assistant Principal Kelly Harding to build a new life. Last summer, he participated in a new program run by Harding that’s helped him to overcome his pain and has given him a renewed hope for his future.

Every day, I thank Ms. Kelly, because when she introduced me to the Bootcamp, she showed us that she wants this generation to do something that can help the community

Harding is a new doctoral graduate from the University of Alberta’s Department of Secondary Education, and the mastermind behind the Trades Exposure Bootcamp. Launched in the summer of 2015, this two-week program is designed to give high school students like Bult real-world experience in the construction industry while they earn high school credit and job certification.

Funded by a three-year private grant from Merit Contractors Association, the program is part of an initiative aimed at boosting 10 key fields identified within the industry by providing pathway-learning opportunities for urban youth who are underrepresented or undereducated in these areas.

Centre High has pioneered these kinds of programs throughout its 18 years of existence, and Harding has been a part of them since the beginning. Located in the century-old Revillon Building in downtown Edmonton, Centre High is a fourth- and fifth-year high school that offers access to publicly funded education for students who have “aged out” of the standard system. This includes a significant number of inner-city youth, immigrants, and refugees like Bult, whose circumstances have made it difficult to access education by traditional means.

Because of this, Centre High’s teachers have to develop educational programs tailored to these students’ unique needs. In the case of the Trades Exposure Bootcamp, Harding wanted to give students a chance to explore the construction industry without being locked into any one field. Compared to the Registered Apprenticeship Program, which requires students to commit to a specific trade by Grade 10, this more flexible approach allows students who may have never even used a hammer to get a sense of what the construction industry is like and decide whether to pursue it as a career. Regardless of how far they go, Harding says every student gains valuable experience and certification that they can use for countless career paths.

“This really is about exploration. It’s about opportunities, opening up for kids to explore different things, while at the same time building their resumé, so that at the end they can find some great work,” she says.

“Within the trades, there are really wonderful opportunities for young people to find meaningful work, satisfying work that they could point to 100 years from now, and their grandkids could say ‘My grandpa helped build that’. Whether it’s the High Level Bridge or the new downtown arena, there’s meaning in that work.”

When she first helped launch the program earlier this year, Harding was nervous about attracting enough interest to fill the 15 spots required to get the project off the ground. Within 48 hours, she had to cap registration at 45.

There’s something significant when you invite people to be a part of your community, and then you give them the skills to function and thrive

Over the course of the bootcamp’s two weeks, students worked in teams and learned how to frame, floor, side, and roof a house, and build a porch and a pony wall. The construction site was divided into two areas: a computer lab, where they could watch videos and write exams to gain job site certifications, and a work space to put their skills into practice, where they built 15 playhouses.

Of the 37 students who ultimately completed the program, eight were immediately hired by construction firms like Raywalt, Fillmore, and Clark Builders, while several more received offers of future employment.

Bult was one of those students, but he decided to put his offer on hold so that he could finish his diploma. He says that he views his educational experience not as a goal, but as a means to an end that will enable him to help others. He sees the opportunities presented by Harding’s program as a gift—a tool that he can use to help his neighbours and save others from experiencing the pain he’s faced in his life.

“Every day, I thank Ms. Kelly, because when she introduced me to the Bootcamp, she showed us that feeling that she wants this generation to do something that can help the community,” he says. “She did it because she wants us to do something good in our community and our environment.”

At the end of the bootcamp, instructors asked students to decide what to do with the playhouses, and they collectively agreed to donate them to local charities, including Habitat for Humanity, Zebra Child Centre, WIN House, and Aboriginal programs throughout the city. Harding says that offering these resources to underprivileged students and helping to show them the value of compassion is what truly sets the program apart.

“There’s something significant when you invite people to be a part of your community, and then you give them the skills to function and thrive,” she says. “Their loyalty and gratitude to the community is huge. And then they want to give back.”

As part of their agreement with Centre High, Merit Contractors also offers students free access to their online college of construction courses—an e-learning resource that typically costs thousands in tuition. And while the program is currently funded by Merit’s private grant, Harding has worked to have it articulated through Career & Technology Studies (CTS) credits to ensure that it remains sustainable in the long term.

“We would never have been able to do this if it hadn’t been for people coming together to recognize that no one aspect of society can do it alone. A school can’t do it by itself, industry can’t do it by itself, the communities can’t do it by themselves, but when we work together, we’re doing some pretty amazing things,” Harding says.

Harding’s entire career has been informed by this collaborative approach to education. The four-time UAlberta grad credits her professors for supporting her success. She cites Secondary Education’s Tom Dust as the instructor who helped her secure her first full-time teaching job before she had even finished her program, and Jim Parsons for creating in her an ethic of risk-taking that she’s brought into her professional career, helping her to look at any challenge as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

While completing her master of education degree, Harding began to develop a much deeper sense of the interconnectedness that’s impacting countless careers today. The days of focusing on a single skill or trade are gone, and Harding hopes to help her students develop unique skill sets that will give them greater mobility in the modern career landscape.

“The old model of preparing people for one career for one lifetime no longer fits,” she says, stressing that educators today need to focus less on specific vocations and more on ensuring their students feel supported and have access to the resources they need to achieve any goal.

“If you’ve got the support and you’ve got the tools and you’ve got access to people — that, I think, is a really important piece that I know has made a huge difference in my life.”

There’s no doubt that this approach has had a profound impact on Centre High students like Bult. Speaking with wisdom beyond his age, he cites a proverb he learned as a child that perfectly reflects the attitude of hope inherent in Harding’s teaching:

“In Africa, they would say, ‘They took my home. They took my land. They took my money. But they cannot take my future.’ Your future is more important than what you have in the present. What we’re doing now is preparing for the future.”

Keeping these words close to his heart has helped Bult overcome feelings of anger towards the people who took his family and focus instead on the value of shaping the future, for himself and for others.

“If I help someone today, I hope that person can help someone else tomorrow,” he says. “I’m not doing that to make myself feel more special than others. I’m not doing it for power. I’m not a politician. People say that power is the best thing you can have. But the best thing for me is peace.”