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The Spark – How a single package of pencils sparked an initiative that now empowers 5,000 Ottawa-area students

October 2, 2020


As Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast continue to navigate, adjust, and adapt to the “new normal” of living during a pandemic, Rogers has leaned in with national partnerships – including Food Banks Canada, Women’s Shelters Canada, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Pflag – to help support vulnerable Canadians.  As we mark our 60th year serving Canadians, we issued a challenge to every Rogers employee:  help us do even more by volunteering your time so we can reach our 60,000 Volunteer Hours goal by Canada Day, 2021.

And then the powerful stories started coming in!  From community cleanups and school supply drives, to sharing joy and hope with painted rocks, Team Rogers is making a difference in the communities where we live and work.  Inspired by this passion and commitment to making Canada a better place for all, Sevaun Palvetzian, Chief Communication Officer who also leads corporate responsibility at Rogers, recently sat down with two Rogers for Business employees in Ottawa, Shealee Free and Rebecca MacMillan to learn about an incredible initiative they launched a few years ago.

Each volunteerism story starts with a spark – an impulse to help make our communities a little better, a little stronger.  Though it looks very different this year, students everywhere returned to school over the last couple of weeks.  And many students – and their families – are in need. 

THE SPARK:  It started with a pack of pencils… 

Seven years ago, Shealee Free was shopping at a local Walmart in Ottawa with her two young sons.  In the “back to school” stationary aisle, she saw another mother with her daughters counting pencils and rationing school supplies for her girls, quietly telling them she couldn’t afford everything they needed for school. 

Shealee’s own children were young – not yet in school – but she knew what a profound impact the school experience has on children. She thought no child should feel any different from kids sitting beside them because of what they have or don’t have, and we need to level the playing field. And as a mother, she knew that parents don’t want their kids to see their struggle — if donated school supplies allowed parents to buy groceries and pay rent, it might relieve some of the pressure.  Move to act, Shealee, a Senior Manager with Rogers for Business Solutions in Ottawa, put a box by her office door and a call-out to colleagues to donate school supplies.

Over time, the school supply drive evolved to backpacks, each stuffed with back-to-school essentials and distributed through the Education Foundation of Ottawa to kids who needed them.  In 2017, Rebecca MacMillan, a Manager of Business Customer Service, joined Shealee to lead the fundraiser. Rebecca encouraged employees and their own children to write inspirational notes to the kids receiving the backpacks.  These personal notes — which let the kids know they are worthy and can do anything they put their mind to — make the students feel loved and seen.  Kids who’ve received the notes look at them often, as a touchstone of encouragement before exams or reassurance on tough days.

THE IMPACT:  A $20K goal in 2020

Since its humble beginnings with a donation box in 2013, Shealee and Rebecca’s project has seen hundreds of Ottawa-area employees donate supplies, money and volunteer time to support this initiative for at-risk youth in Grades 1-9, now filling nearly 5,000 backpacks in its peak year.  In 2020, they pivoted to fundraising during COVID-19, with a goal of raising $20,000 to buy supplies in bulk to fill Costco-provided backpacks, continuing to make a meaningful difference for students.

“For several years, you have found a way to ensure that the Education Foundation of Ottawa has what it needs to reduce barriers to student learning. At a time when civic engagement has been lost upon so many, Rogers Communications has made it a clear and intentional value of the company and empowers their employees to find innovative ways to support our community. Your efforts help our Tools for Learning Program, supporting our goal to ensure that ALL students have what they need so they are prepared to learn. During these challenging times, parents have so many things to worry about; access to educational supplies should not be one of them. On behalf of the Foundation, the Ottawa-Carlton District School Board, and the over 75,000 Ottawa students we serve, we thank you so much for being a true example of the definition of community.”
– Clarissa Arthur, Executive Director, Education Foundation of Ottawa

Empowering youth through education was so important to our company founder Ted Rogers – education and opportunities for young people is one way we can continue to strengthen our communities and our country.  One spark at a time!

HOW TO HELP:  You can nurture this “spark” – or ignite your own!

Supporting our communities through volunteerism is one of the ways Rogers is working to make a better Canada possible for everyone.  You can donate supplies or money to the Education Foundation of Ottawa here, or reach out to your local school district to help.