Forces to be reckoned with

Three current and former McGill students are finalists for the 2010 Forces AVENIR Personality of the Year Awards for their exceptional leadership and contributions to society. The winners will be announced at Nov. 10 gala in Sherbrooke, Que. Read about them here.

Deborah Hayek worked as a logistics coordinator in a project for a rural school in a small village in Ghana (above) and another in India. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Hayek

Deborah Hayek: Undergraduate category

By Jim Hynes

Want your kids to develop a love of and expertise for something, like sports or music? Then start ’em young, they say. That’s what Deborah Hayek’s parents did, instilling a commitment to volunteering and a passion for the environment and human rights with her and her older sister at an early age.

“I was raised by parents who were very involved in the local community, especially with local environmental groups like the Green Coalition,” says Hayek, a finalist for the Forces AVENIR Award in the Undergraduates Category who graduated from McGill with a degree in Anthropology and Social Studies last spring. “My sister and I have been volunteering with community projects since we were young because our parents led by example.”

Hayek’s volunteering has taken her to Ghana and India, where she worked as a logistics co-ordinator in rural school projects. She later returned to India on another project, where she helped organize a solar-cooking project aimed at countering a fuel shortage as well as poverty and malnutrition.

Hayek’s community work has also taken her across Canada – literally. In 2009, the Montreal native embarked on a cross-country tour that saw her work with 12 organizations in five different cities, where she did everything from organizing a farmers’ market in Toronto to serving food in a community kitchen in Kamloops, B.C. She currently serves on the board of directors of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal, where she co-ordinates workshops on human rights.

“I’m a person who likes to be busy and loves being involved in many projects at the same time. I also tend to volunteer with projects or organizations that are in the same field as what I study in school, so my commitments are complementary and not competing against each other for my energy,” says Hayek, who is now pursuing a Master’s of Social Work at the Université de Montreal.

“Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about my community and my country in relation to others, especially in regards to what social services are needed, what types are given and what impedes individuals from accessing the help they need,” Hayek says. “I learned about the political forces that can influence the adoption of environmental protection laws, and the individual impetus needed to create social change. I had already studied these relationships academically, but it gives me a different yet important conception of social forces when I work with organizations. I believe it is important for people to get involved in their community not only to effect positive social change, but also to understand how much their community needs them and how many incredible things they are capable of accomplishing.”

Jonathan Glencross: Undergraduate category

By Neale McDevitt

Jonathan Glencross spearheaded the implementation of the Sustainability projects Fund at McGill. / Photo: Adam Scotti

It is clear that the question makes Jonathan Glencross uncomfortable. He’s just been asked about his legacy at McGill – not the standard question fielded by an undergraduate. But few undergrads have had a bigger impact on the University than Glencross, a fourth-year student at the School of the Environment. When he graduates this spring, the Montreal native will leave a huge footprint – remarkably low in carbon – as one of the architects of the University’s Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) that has seen the administration and student body team up to finance projects across the University.

True to form, Glencross deflects the attention and emphasizes the many people – students and administrators – who have pulled together to make the SPF a working model for schools across the country. “When I started at McGill, the biggest things people wanted were composting, a centralized unit for sustainability and the SPF,” said Glencross, a finalist for the Forces AVENIR Award in the Undergraduates Category. “Today we have the Office of Sustainability, the SPF and the [industrial-sized] composter. These are legacies of five or more years of student activism – and some administrative activism – working together.

“When I speak to other institutions about how well designed the process is behind the SPF and the scale that is possible, they are blown away. I think there are at least 20 institutions looking to create something similar based on what we’ve been able to inspire.”

The $2.5-million fund has an annual budget of just over $800,000 for three years – the largest fund of its kind for a North American university. The money will come in equal parts from students and the administration, with students being charged 50 cents per credit and the university contributing the equivalent of the amount raised.

Of the 15 projects to receive funding thus far, Glencross cites McGill Feeding McGill as being “the coolest.”

The initiative sees people from Plant Sciences and the Macdonald Campus Horticultural Centre working with Food and Dining Services to provide locally grown food to downtown residences, the Faculty Club and Thomson House. The group is the University’s largest supplier of fruits and vegetables.

“We have students studying food, growing it, distributing it and eating it and we’re composting on campus, too,” said Glencross “It’s a closed cycle, but there is a learning opportunity that integrates curriculum and operations.”

For Glencross, collaboration between students and administration is perhaps the biggest legacy of the fledgling SPF. “Yes, there is still a huge culture of adversarialism [between the two groups],” he said. “But this is proof of principle that is big and meaningful and hits everything that the University is supposed to be doing in terms of teaching, learning and working together. This is something to feed the skeptics who say these are just lofty ideas.”

Sarah Deschênes: Graduate category

By Pascal Zamprelli

Sarah Deschênes donates part of the proceeds from her book l'Enfance muette to Leucan, an organization that helps children with cancer and their families. / Photo: Marc Gilbert/

“I would have loved to be a doctor! But I love being a writer even more,” says Sarah Deschênes, a Master’s student in French literature and one of three finalists for the Forces AVENIR Award in the Graduates category.

Originally from Rimouski, Deschênes had planned to study medicine at CÉGEP, but veered toward creative writing at the 11th hour. In either case, her plan was always to help others, especially children. Her own childhood had been marked by personal tragedy: the death of her older sister, who succumbed to leukemia. Deschênes eventually came to realize that her talent for harnessing the power of words would be the key to her making a positive impact on others.

“I wondered what I could do to make a difference,” Deschênes says. “I never thought I would write about my sister’s leukemia and death, but it was suddenly so clear: I would write about it, I would write in the name of all children who have lost a brother or a sister.”

The result is “a true story about my real life,” published in 2008 and titled l’Enfance muette – a widely-praised book that has spun off into a series of speaking engagements through which Deschênes is able to “help children find their own voice through loss.”

Plus, part of the proceeds from book sales goes to Leucan, an organization that helps cancer-stricken children and their families in Québec. “I was happy to see that [the book] was a way to give them back a bit of all they gave us at the time,” says Deschênes, who plans to continue being a positive influence by becoming a teacher in CÉGEP.

As if she wasn’t busy enough, she will soon have the chance to support and encourage yet another young person: her own. She and her husband are expecting their first in April.