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Unique elementary school program combines fun with learning



The friendship ball is a circle

No beginning, no end

It keeps us together

Like our circle of friends

But the treasure inside

For you to see

Is the treasure of friendship

You’ve given to me

By Greig Bethel

It’s a sunny weekday afternoon and Pemberton youth co-ordinator Wendy Hanson is sitting on the steps of the Coast Mountain Outdoor School surrounded by elementary school students.

Hanson and the students are here, about 25 kilometres north of Pemberton, to participate in the Circle of Friends program.

The program – a three-day educational retreat for Grade 5 students from Signal Hill elementary school – is Hanson’s pride and joy.

"Circle of Friends is about teaching kids to celebrate their differences," Hanson says squinting in the midday sun. "It takes kids out of the classroom where they can have fun and learn at the same time."

The program, which is funded by the provincial attorney-general ministry, started three years ago when Hanson was approached by the local RCMP detachment.

"Pemberton was chosen because of its unique cultural mix," she says motioning to the Native and white kids lounging on the grass in front of her. They are all chatting and laughing together during a snack break.

Circle of Friends consists of educational presentations and seminars, hands-on arts and crafts, outdoor games, Native sweat lodges and night time skits.

Hanson says it’s the unique setting among the trees, mountains and rivers that helps the program succeed. "It gives the kids a new perspective."

The presentations and seminars focus on teaching the 56 students, who are divided into six racially- and gender-diverse groups, how to accept the differences of others. Groups of friends are split up and two high school students are included as mentors.

According to Hanson, the mentors set a good example for the elementary school students. "The kids really look up to them," she says.

"I think it’s a great program," says Sarah Ayers, a Grade 12 student at Pemberton secondary school. "These issues don’t get talked about in school and, besides, we have tons of fun."

Each group learns by circulating through all the workshops, while the common activities let the students put their education into action by interacting with their peers.

"Circle of Friends is all about being a better person," says Signal Hill elementary school principal Paul Lorette. "It fosters leadership and social responsibility.

"Any time you get the kids out of school, there is a different dynamic. It’s a good moment to really reach them."

Lorette says the program is so successful that it creates a buzz among other students. "The Grade 4s really look forward to it and the older kids can’t stop talking about it. This is the type of thing you remember."

And, according to the smiles on students’ faces, the program seems to be working.

"This is better than school because you don’t have to do work," says 11-year-old Larissa Pascal. "This" – the learning, the fun and the memories – "isn’t work."