July 01, 2020 7 min read 1 Comment
Spirit North is on a mission to make Indigenous children unstoppable in school and life by empowering them through sport. The charitable organisation has been using the transformative power of land-based activities to do just that since 2009, after founder and CEO Beckie Scott wanted to play her part in reconciliation. The decorated Olympic cross country skier wanted to use what she knew to really make a difference in the lives of Indigenous children and youth. When Spirit North visits a school or community to take the children out, for some it’s their first time on skis. The impact is huge — with increased school attendance, confidence, and resilience in the children.
We at Rocky are so proud to be partnering with Spirit North for our Community Bar program. Each month we release a limited edition bar and $1 from each bar sold supports those partners. Be sure to check out March’s bar named, you guessed it — Spirit North, made with local Canadian Labrador Tea. We sat down with Beckie to talk more about this incredible organisation that shares our values of connecting to nature.Why did you want to found Spirit North?
I’ve always been inspired by the idea of using sport as something more than the pursuit of excellence or high performance competition. And when I became aware of the realities for many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, particularly the children and youth, and the crisis of mental health, chronic disease and, of course, depression and suicide rates, I was really motivated to play a part in reconciliation, as a Canadian. I felt that sport was what I knew, and sport was something that could offer such tremendous benefits in terms of just crossing all the barriers.
Sport really transcends every barrier that there is. It's an incredibly effective tool for engaging children and youth, and once they're engaged there's such an opportunity for teaching, healing and strengthening individuals. I felt very strongly that this was an opportunity that should be available to everyone, but especially for those who are most marginalized and vulnerable among us.
What's the impact that you see coming out of involving children with sport?
On some level that's really individual and really personal and on other levels we can see some very strong threads and common themes. We talk a lot about the impact on mental health, because we know now that physical health and mental health are intrinsically linked. So when you give children a new opportunity to move and be active on the land — being on the land is particularly important for Indigenous Peoples — what comes with that is an opportunity to experience transformation in mental health, like feelings of joy, belonging, confidence and increased self esteem.
We often hear teachers and educators speak about the amount of resilience that is learned through our program. We really see it as a holistic impact in a lot of ways because they're experiencing the obvious benefits that come with being physically active, but together with that improved mental health. Then all the ripple effects that come from that which are then transferred back into the classroom and into the community, giving kids an opportunity to grow, strengthen themselves, and then to become really vibrant contributing members in their schools and in their communities.
I read that 91% of teachers report that the programs have a positive impact on their students, and I was wondering why you think that is? Why do we see this positive impact in academia, beyond the mental and physical health aspects?
It's a school-based program, so it takes place in and after school. We do that deliberately because that's where the kids are and that's the easiest point of access to them. But beyond that, the classroom and the education benefits have a couple of layers to them.
On an individual level, it's a child who has the opportunity to be active during the day. We know that there's a positive impact on education that way because kids come back into the classroom ready to learn, more calm and focussed. It's a chance to relieve stress. They've also had a chance to learn a new skill, which develops confidence and even some courage.
Beyond that there are opportunities for curriculum development around activity. A lot of teachers have taken the program and brought in language teachers, knowledge keepers, or any kind of option that might be incorporated into the program. Then there’s the additional benefit of attendance. When Spirit North is coming to school teachers have reported marked increases in attendance.
What is the importance of helping children connect to the land at a young age?
Our program really focuses on the kids having enjoyable, supportive recreation and physical activity on the land and we do that very deliberately because there's a lot of research now behind the importance of getting kids outside and active in nature and on the land. That is particularly true for Indigenous children and youth. There's a connection historically and the opportunities have become less and less over the years for them to connect to culture, their identity, and to the many mental health benefits that being on the land provides. So any activity that we do, unless the weather is terrible, we get to go outside and on the land.
Connecting to nature is also so important in Rocky’s values.
I think it's good for all of us. It’s really so important and so calming. It's so positive and often neglected. We really have moved away from connecting to nature and the land, so that's one of the real priorities of this program, and our values.
You started skiing when you were five. I'm curious if you have any reflection on the impact of being involved in sport from such a young age and how that aided you in your development?
I enjoyed sport from a very young age and felt that it really connected me to community, opportunity, and also to my own personal development. I learned all kinds of new skills, made new friends and had new experiences, and when I look back at how sport impacted my life as a young person I think it's almost all positive.
Eventually I pursued it as a career, and really lived out my potential as an athlete in sport. We don't place any emphasis on competition or encourage the kids at all to compete, but we do want them to do have those same experiences and be able to find opportunity to find community to build resilience while learning skills that they didn't have before and enjoy that full spectrum of benefits that come with being involved in activity and sport.
Spirit North was founded in 2009, so it's been going for over a decade now and we've seen Spirit North grow to different parts of Canada. How do you feel, having seen the organization grow like this?
It's really exciting, and I feel so fortunate to have both the leadership team and also the coaches that have come to the program to be leaders for Spirit North. We have attracted some incredibly talented and remarkable individuals to the organization and I think that's a big part of why it's grown and how successful it's been, because relationships are really a cornerstone of our organisation. We work very hard to develop and sustain lasting and strong relationships with communities. We see ourselves as a partner and an ally and not as an outside entity that's coming in as an all knowing organization. We really strive to work shoulder to shoulder with communities in helping to address some of the physical and mental health challenges that the youth are facing. To that end, we've attracted some incredibly dedicated and inspiring individuals who want to help us do that.
How do you see it growing in the future?
We're going to continue to grow as long as we can continue to attract resources and funding to the program. We would love to be in every province reaching as many children and youth as need this program. We are in six provinces and territories this year and over 60 communities, so 6000 children and youth and we've got some ambitious goals by far but there's no reason we can't achieve them.
Looking back over the years is there a moment that comes to mind that you can share that warms your heart?
On one of my first trips to Northern Alberta we did a ski day in a Metis settlement, in Kikino, Alberta. I met a young boy there, his name is Kian, and he was seven years old at the time and just took to the skis like I hadn't seen a child do before. It was his first time and he showed this incredible affinity and talent for skiing and also loved it. You can see how he just really lit up and was smiling and really joyful the whole time. Over the years as the program continued he stayed involved and became actually competitive and then became a ski leader at school. Now, this year he competed in his third Alberta Winter Games as an athlete from Kikino. It's been incredibly inspiring and heartwarming to watch his journey over the years since he transformed, and hear him say how much he loves skiing and how much it's a big part of his life. I really am so pleased and proud to have played a small part in that journey for him.
We hear stories like that across the communities now. And the longer a community is with the organisation, the longer we're in partnership, the more stories you hear like that. I think if we're making a difference even to one child, it's worthwhile.
That’s so wonderful. Is there anything that you’d like to add?
I'd like to add how appreciative we are of the partnership with Rocky Mountain Soap Company and that we really feel our values are aligned. We're so grateful to have your support and to be in this partnership, we really appreciate the opportunity.
So do we! Thank you so much, Spirit North!
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