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High school students give back to a community member in need

'If we can combine learning and helping in the community, everybody wins in that situation'

Guelph resident Yvonne MacIsaac calls a newly-built accessibility ramp at her home "a godsend."

The project, which took over a month to complete, was done by Grade 11 students at St. James Catholic High School. Fifteen students participated in building the ramp, which passed inspections by the City of Guelph.

"They dedicated the whole first period to it and it was amazing to watch," said MacIsaac.

MacIsaac, whose oldest son and two daughters attended St. James CHS, had part of her leg amputated last September. Her whole leg was then removed due to complications after the surgery. Currently, MacIsaac uses an electric wheelchair, which has made navigating in and out of her house a challenge.

"I lost all my freedom, I couldn't even go out onto the deck on a nice day," said MacIsaac, adding her husband had to help carry her in and out of the house.  "Now that the ramp is done, it opens up the world so much more."

"It's nice to have something that works well, looks good and is also useful for someone else," said Evan Nikolasevic, a student involved in the project.

Construction class teacher Jerry Della Savia said there wasn't much of a push to get the ramp built as students wanted to help this community member.

"They saw the value in it and they enjoyed it," said Della Savia, adding every student had a different level of skill and understanding to contribute.

"We started off by digging a hole so we could put in a concrete base, we started off at looking at blueprints, then the teacher, he gave us all goals, and I helped build the framing, and we all worked together to make deck board, and we all got assigned to work on a spot on the railing, and we all did the railing," said Nikolasevic.

"We all just kind of helped each other carry on the next step as we needed to finish it," adds Felix Kane, another student who was involved. "I really liked helping build it (the ramp) as a way to give back to the community and to a person who really needs it, I thought it was a great thing to do."

MacIsaac, who previously ran the breakfast and snack program at St. John Catholic School, is also the former president of the local Autism Ontario chapter and has supported a number of local families. She organized sensory sensitive film nights with local theatres, community programming and a trip to Disney World for 13 families.

Stephanie Zonneveld, project lead with the WCDSB, said she has worked with MacIsaac for a number of years and when she head about the former volunteer's health challenges, brought the idea of the ramp to the attention of the school principal, Sandra Cummings.

"We're a Catholic board, we're an inclusive board. We often talk about what we do for each other and work as a team. I knew that Yvonne was really struggling, that she was relegated to her home, and couldn't get in or out," said Zonneveld, who had also co-created a GoFundMe page for MacIsaac, which helped get her an electric wheelchair and a hospital bed.

"My hero Stephanie comes in and she sent this idea to the board (WCDSB), I didn't even know," said MacIsaac.

Zonneveld said this allowed the WCDSB  to get a permit and provided guidance to the school and board teams as to necessary materials and to the construction work required for us to pass the three inspections and build a safe and accessible ramp.

"It was the community and the village that came together to make it happen and that was wonderful," said Zonneveld. 

Currently, Zonneveld adds St. James CHS is considering using this project as a springboard to develop a Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program in construction. She hopes this will lead to other community projects involving students.

"It puts people in very tough positions when they encounter these types of health concerns and it changes their ability to look after themselves, " said Zonneveld.

Since completing the project, Della Savia adds students have been acting differently since being on the job site, and has gotten many comments from them about being happy to help. 

"We always talk about donating and helping others, but this is, but this is actually a little bit beyond donating, this is giving of their skills and time, and they can see how much help, how much freedom she's going to have getting in and out of her house independently," said Della Savia. 

"If we combine learning and helping in the community, everybody wins in that situation."