Students in Carson Graham's Community Initiatives and Leadership program take part in the "contagion experiment".
Walking up and down Lonsdale at 3:30 p.m. on a weekday pretty much guarantees passing at least one group of teenagers who have just left school for the day. What one would not expect, however, is a group of teenagers smiling, saying hello and offering kind words to everyone they pass.
"It has an impact, people like it and it spreads. When you positively impact one person's day, they then go and positively impact someone else's day," said Ghazaleh Akbari, a grade 12 student at Carson Graham Secondary School and a member of the Community Initiatives and Leadership program offered at the school.
The three instructors of the Community Initiatives and Leadership program – Rob Olson, Meghan Parker and Shannon Van Baalen – have kicked-off the program by having students take part in what they term the 'contagion experiment'. They ask students to walk up and down Lonsdale Avenue and positively greet everyone they pass. A group of students trailing behind assess whether or not the people who had been positively greeted by the students before them return the gesture of a kind greeting or even just a smile to the next group of students who pass.
According to the students taking part, the people they passed often warmed-up immediately, smiled and even said hello.
"The goal of the contagion experiment is to demonstrate that positivity is contagious," said Olson. "The students are learning to be leaders, and leaders need to be positive, respect people and they need to be present."
Last school year, the students took the contagion concept, brought it back to their school and carried it on throughout the entire year. Every morning greeters would open the doors for other students and staff, and they would welcome the school with kind words.
"It feels great when someone tells you that you are wonderful and appreciated and to have a great day," said Akbari.
The contagion initiative at the school had a positive impact on the school overall.
"It changed the school dynamics in a very positive way," said Shirin Zohrabi, grade 12 student and member of the Community Initiatives and Leadership program. "I found that it lightening my mood and I was able to learn better because I was happy."
Both Zohrabi and Akbari have been taking the Community Initiatives and Leadership program since grade nine. The purpose of the program is to teach students leadership skills by taking on student-driven projects that support the local community. Zohrabi and Akbari credit the course with changing their perspectives and helping them grow as leaders.
"It has definitely refined my values of what I appreciate and what I want in life," said Zohrabi. "This course is like a part of me now. I have a soft-spot for it and get excited for class each week."
What is so powerful about the program, according to Akbari, is that the students who take it are likeminded and genuinely want to give back to their community, and influence positive change. In addition to the cohort of students, another benefit of the course is that it is student-led.
"The teachers are facilitators and they let us take the lead; we get to explore our passions," explained Zohrabi.
The projects that students undertake have ranged from community dinners for the homeless, to organizing and planning workshops and conferences, to building a flower garden at a centre for women with eating disorders.
"There is a lot of self-motivation in the projects students undertake and many positive aptitudes are instilled in us as a result," said Akbari. "You're left with ongoing inspiration to do more."
The Carson Graham Community Initiatives and Leadership program is locally developed and now includes approximately 100 students in grades 9-12. This year's cohort of students in the Community Initiatives classes plan on, once again, continuing the contagion experiment in their school throughout the year and being a positive change in their school and community.