Photo by Sports Information

11 Rams travel to James Bay on annual humanitarian trip

By Jessica Pincente

TORONTO — Just a few short months ago, 11 student-athletes embarked on the annual Ryerson Rams Care humanitarian trip to volunteer their time running youth programming in two Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario.

Partaking on the trip was women’s soccer’s Selena Benvenuto (Brampton, Ont.) and Gillian Rossi (Mississauga, Ont.), volleyball’s Greg Vukets (Auckland, NZ) and Adrianna Chiofalo (Pickering, Ont.), figure skating’s Kaitlyn Wilson (Waterloo, Ont.), women’s hockey’s Keelin Farren (Toronto, Ont.), Teagan Gartley (Kitchener, Ont.), Brooklyn Gemmill (Cambridge, Ont.), and Olivia Giardetti (Whitby, Ont.), and coaches Sydney Authier and Ailish Forfar.

This year’s humanitarian trip was organized by student leaders Rossi and Forfar. Both past recipients of Ryerson’s G.L. Dobson Trophy for Outstanding Contribution to Interuniversity Sport, Campus and Community Life, Rossi and Forfar have traveled overseas with the Rams in previous years as a part of the annual student-led volunteer initiative.

          Teagan Gartley, Ailish Forfar, Selena Benvenuto, Sydney Authier, Adrianna Chiofalo, Kaitlyn Wilson and local youth in front of a sunset in Attawapiskat, Ontario.

Unlike past years, though, this year’s group opted to focus their efforts closer to home. The decision to volunteer in two of Ontario’s Indigenous communities speaks to a greater university and nation-wide Truth and Reconciliation initiative.

“It was important to just listen, to become an ally or an advocate,” explains Brooklyn Gemmill, a second-year women’s hockey player and a humanitarian trip rookie, “Going into each day with a little bit more knowledge than we had the day before.”

This year, the Rams partnered with Jays Care Foundation to facilitate in the planning and execution of the trip.

The ultimate goal was to encourage the students to take what they learned and share it in a positive way back home whilst also building relationships with the local youth in the two communities, says Caitlyn Nelson. Nelson serves as Jays Care Foundation's Manager of Indigenous and Remote Community Initiatives, coordinating projects such as the James Bay Girls At Bat program. Nelson helped lay the groundwork for this year’s group of Ryerson student-athletes.

“The students felt their efforts would be better suited closer to home,” says Nelson. “Ryerson already has a partnership with Jays Care, and when Ailish [Forfar] reached out to me to discuss the trip, I thought it would be a great opportunity for the students to meet some of the youth in our program.”

The 11-person team met in Toronto on the 27th of April and began their 12-day journey. First off, the Rams gathered in the classroom to gain valuable insight on Indigenous communities and culture.

“Before the trip, we talked a lot about how the media can negatively convey Indigenous communities,” explains Brooklyn Gemmill, a second-year women’s hockey player and a humanitarian trip rookie. “But we learned this isn’t true. The community welcomed us and were always willing to lend a helping hand. The youth we worked with were just typical teenagers who had to grow up very fast given their circumstances.”

Nelson says the pre-travel education addressed how each individual student can have a positive impact on the community: by becoming an advocate for Indigenous people in Canada.

“In our sessions, we touched on how [the students should] speak about their experiences and these communities in a way that the local people would be proud of,” states Nelson. "As volunteers, one of the most meaningful impacts we can have is to spread awareness back home about the amazing people living in communities and help Canadians better understand the context of where they are living and the history of how they got there."

On May 1st, the group began their journey to James Bay. Flying from Toronto to Timmins, the Rams spent one night collecting non-perishable food items to bring with them up north. The following day, the team flew from Timmins to Moosonee where they were split into two groups, each visiting a different community. Gemmill’s group traveled to Moose Factory, while the second group went some 250 kilometers north to Attawapiskat.

Teagan Gartley, Ailish Forfar, Selena Benvenuto, Sydney Authier, Adrianna Chiofalo, Kaitlyn Wilson, and local youth in Attawapiskat, Ontario.                             Teagan Gartley, Ailish Forfar, Selena Benvenuto, Sydney Authier, Adrianna Chiofalo, Kaitlyn Wilson, and local youth in Attawapiskat, Ontario.

Once they reached their destination, the Rams were tasked with planning and executing youth programming in each of their respective communities. Adrianna Chiofalo, another humanitarian trip rookie, recalls what a typical day was like for her team in Attawapiskat.

“We would typically wake up around 9 a.m., make breakfast and begin to plan youth programming for the day,” says Chiofalo. “We came up with games and activities to do with children whose ages ranged from four to 16.”

Activities included painting, playing sports, or making crafts, among other things, says Chiofalo. The team would regroup after lunch and begin running the programs around 1:00 p.m.

“Half of us would head to the community gym while the other half went to the youth center,” says Chiofalo.

The team in Moose Factory followed a similar formula, leading programming with high school students at the community’s youth center.

“They usually wanted to play basketball once when they got out of class,” explains Gemmill. “Some of the girls who weren’t into basketball would do other activities, like art or journaling.”

Once the afternoon programming was wrapped up in Attawapiskat, Chiofalo says the team would prepare activities as part of the James Bay Girls At Bat program.

A typical evening was spent cooking and eating dinner with girls in the program.

“To end the night, we would clean up, lock up the community center and go for a walk, just chatting and hanging out with the girls. Then, once it got too cold, we walked all the girls home and went back to the lodge to debrief,” says Chiofalo.

The Rams in Moose Factory also spent their evenings with the girls in the program, cooking dinner and exploring the surrounding community. Once nightfall hit, the team would debrief with their Jays Care leaders before heading to bed.

                            Keelin Farren, Olivia Giardetti, Gillian Rossi, Brooklyn Gemmill, Greg Vukets, Jays Care leaders and local youth in Moose Factory, Ontario.

The schedule remained the same over the course of the following six days. The Rams began their long journey back to Toronto on May 7th, returning home with a lifetime's worth of memories from their week some 1200 kilometers north of the city.

Both Gemmill and Chiofalo recall specific moments of acceptance from the community, naming those as their favourite memories from the trip.

“The girls really wanted to show us a sunset by a specific lookout,” explains Gemmill. “They were talking about it all day. We went to go eat dinner, and then it started pouring rain. The whole group figured there was no chance they would still want to go see the sunset. In fact, we didn’t think there was even going to be a sunset.”

The local girls weren’t going to let a bit of rain spoil their fun. They did their best to convince the Rams to go on the expedition, and, after a bit of discussion, the team decided they would stick to the original plan and head to the lookout.

“As soon as it was time to go, the rain suddenly stopped,” recalls Gemmill. “They took us to the lookout, and we were playing games as the sun was setting. It was an incredible experience and something that I’ll always cherish.”

              Olivia Giardetti, Gillian Rossi, Brooklyn Gemmill, Keelin Farren, Greg Vukets, Jays Care leaders and local youth take in a sunset in Moose Factory, Ontario.

Similar to Gemmill’s story of friendship, Chiofalo names receiving a homemade gift from a local community member as her favourite memory from the trip.

“We were all just hanging out at the community center and one the girls decided to make me a friendship bracelet,” says Chiofalo. “That was my favourite memory, as it demonstrated that they really trusted us and welcomed us into their community.”

A student-led initiative, Ryerson’s annual humanitarian trip has become a staple of Rams Care’s yearly programming. This year’s group remained in Canada for the first time in the trip’s four year history, as the student-athletes opted to volunteer their time in a community much closer to home.

Thanks to Nelson and the trip’s organizers, Ryerson’s partnership with Jays Care Foundation allowed the Rams to make a difference on home soil.

Nelson, who traveled to Attawapiskat with the group, says each student contributed to the trip in their own special way.

“Everyone in the group acted like themselves; each person brought a unique character trait to the trip,” says Nelson. “It made the experience that much more meaningful. The youth we work with have all different kinds of personality traits just like the students do, so we were able to draw on each other’s strengths.”

The problems facing Indigenous communities in our very own province is something that needs to be addressed, expresses Chiofalo.

“We all have so much to learn,” says Chiofalo. “We must all work together to better understand the issues and their culture, providing them with the services and personnel — not the money — they need. The members of these communities are bright, hopeful and beautiful people, they just need help to get out of a dark place.”

“We were told that it took 7 generations to get Indigenous Peoples into the state that they currently live in,” explains Gemmill, “and it’ll take 7 generations more to get out of it.

“I’d challenge everyone I know to visit an Indigenous community at least once in their lives. It’s not everything you read about; they’re definitely facing hardships that I could never imagine, but their communities are so strong.”

More information about Ryerson Rams Care initiatives can be found here.

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