Inside the canteen at Sands Secondary, students lined up next to a fold out table holding gingerbread men on a plate.
It wasn’t the orderly line of a classroom waiting for instruction from a teacher; it was a noisy, bustling line of teens laughing, talking and pushing to smear icing on top of their cookies. Christmas music played in the background.
Behind the line of cookie decorators, some teens played a video game on a projector screen. Other sat at round tables looking at the boxes of board games. Two more struggled to string twinkling lights above the door using painter’s tape.
The doors had opened to the IDEAs drop-in event at 3 p.m. By 3:30 p.m., the after-school program had run out of gingerbread, although some youth still stayed to play board games or basketball.
Dec. 14 marked the Christmas edition of Sands’ IDEAs after-school program, a Friday drop-in event run by students in an attempt to create a stronger sense of community at the school. The seven organizers were meandering around the room, setting up decorations and talking with other students. University students Leah Wong and Sonum Rana were also there, talking with principal Aaron Akune.
Wong and Rana had started IDEAs with their fellow Grade 12 student Yajya Rishi in fall 2016. It began out of a need to fill a space in the teens’ timetables. Sands principal Aaron Akune decided to put them in an independent studies course and pose them two questions: what bothers you in the world and your community, and what are you going to do about it?
“I remember saying, come back with a list of things that are really bugging you, and of course it was like,” Akune said, spreading his hands far apart to demonstrate how long the list was. “So I said, well now you’ve got a challenge. What are you going to do about it?”
For Rana and Wong, the answer was easy.
“We all collectively decided to focus on as local as it kind of gets, our own school,” Rana said. They wanted to address students’ attitudes to education — and to do that, they decided to create a program that would promote a sense of community in the school.
”It was geared towards younger kids,” Wong added. (“Yeah, it’s coming back to me,” Rana said, laughing.)
“When we were in Grade 8, we felt like we weren’t connected to the school community,” Wong continued. “You just came to high school kind of nervous. The older grades, you don’t really talk to them.
“So this was for all the grades to get together and just feel like one community. That was the goal.”
Thus began IDEAs, a weekly after-school program based on the principles of inclusivity, determination, encouragement and altruism. When it began, the program was intended to be a chill hang out space; it offered a place for students to play Nintendo Wii and board games, as well as enjoy some snacks and hang out with friends.
It wasn’t always easy to get students to come, Wong remembered, although that’s not the case now. With each new year, the number of students who participate in IDEAs grows. And with each new group of organizers to take over the program, it becomes a little different too.
“You have to find new things to do at IDEAs and new events to hold to get people to come,” said Grade 12 student and current IDEAs organizer Simran Gandhi. “We also bring back old stuff” like the gingerbread cookie decorating.
Some of the new ideas included opening up IDEAs to include the adjacent gym, to allow students to play basketball, dodge ball or other sports. This year, the group introduced the first ever “seniors night” for students in Grade 10, 11 and 12. Akune expected 40 kids to come. Over the course of the night, 120 students showed up.
But IDEAs isn’t all about the new. Mostly, it’s about the consistently and community.
Each week, IDEAs organizers can expect to see the same 10 or 15 students walk into the school’s canteen, ready to spend some time relaxing after their Friday classes.
“That’s what we like,” organizer Devansh Vasdev, Grade 11, said. “We like to see a smile on their faces.”
“They always sit here and they talk, or they just kind of chill,” fellow organizer Jaidyn Sandhu, Grade 12, said.
“[IDEAs] helps you talk to people you never thought you’d talk to,” she added. “You make good friendships.”
That connection between students is why Rishi, Wong and Rana started the program two and a half years earlier. It’s also what keeps the program going.
“Our passion is that some people are coming in new to our school,” Grade 12 student and organizer Joseph Boban said. He started attending IDEAs when it began, and eventually made his way onto the organizing committee.
“If someone wants to talk to some people, engage with some Grade 11s or Grade 12s, IDEAs is the best place,” he continued. “When I was in Grade 10, I never talked to Grade 11s or Grade 12s. You don’t want to talk them right? You want to talk to your grade.
“When it came to IDEAs, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I like to talk to them.’”
Sands graduate and former organizer Will Mann-Maxwell agreed. He was involved with IDEAs last school year, but sometimes returns with his fellow IDEAs alumni to check in on the program.
“We see the change it has in the kids’ lives that do come,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we come back. We want to see if more people are joining and if some of the same people are here and how they’re doing.”
On Dec. 14, nearly every former IDEAs organizer managed to make it back to Sands Secondary to reconnect over the program. Only Rishi, who Akune said was unable to come because she was writing an exam, didn’t make it.
“What are the chances they would all be able to come back here on a day like this, when four of them are going to go write final exams tomorrow in university,” Akune said. “The fact that they’re willing to make some time to come, it’s kind of heartwarming for me.”
Akune said the students coming back also shows that they see their work over the last two and a half years as a legacy. And it’s one that the current organizers plan to continue.
“Now that I’m here this year, by the end of the year I’ll be able to see what people like and don’t like,” Vasdev said. “The things that I figure out they don’t like, I can get those ideas in that we need to change this around, put this new idea in and take this one out … for the next year.
“Because I feel, those 10, 15 kids that do come in, it’s nice to see them happy.”