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Late on a Monday afternoon, Frank Dubhé-Ducasse is working out the use of peu, peut et peux with his tutor, high school student Marie-Hélène Boudreau-Picard. It's a task the grade five student seems to enjoy, even if grammar isn't his favourite subject. "I like math best," says Frank, sitting amidst other pupils and tutors in a class on the top floor of his school in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a row of triplexes visible across the street, the factories along Notre Dame Street East in the distance.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Frank, along with 45 other pupils at St-Nom-de-Jésus primary school, is part of the Club de devoirs, a program begun last year. Every Monday, from 3:30 to 4:30 pm, he meets with his own private tutor and works on the subjects that give him trouble. He's thrilled to be part of the program.
"I tried to get in last year but didn't make it," says the sociable 10-year-old. "I wanted to get in because I can stay longer at the school where my big brother can't bug me."
Frank's got two older brothers and two older sisters and says he concentrates better at school than at home. That's the case for many of the children at St-Nom-de-Jésus. Located as it is in one of Montreal's poorest neighbourhoods, life at home is frequently disruptive.
"Children in this neighbourhood look forward to coming to school because this is where they find stability and people who care about them," says St-Nom-de-Jésus vice-principal Line Frenette.
Marie-Hélène, 17, on the other hand, comes from Rosemont, where she attends Collège Jean-Eudes, a private school a kilometre or so up the hill from St-Nom-de-Jésus. Now in her second year as a tutor, she has nothing but praise for the program set up by McGill students Joël Thibert and Samuel Vaillancourt, and Université de Montréal student Geneviève Létourneau.
"I learn so much coming here. Last year, it was hard because the boy I had -- who was only in grade one -- was very confrontational. He liked to fight. But the training we were given helped me with ideas such as using games to help break down the barriers."
It is one of the goals of Horizons, which includes the Club de devoirs, to provide teenagers with the possibility of helping others. Samuel Vaillancourt enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to motivate adolescents to volunteer, especially boys. Of the 46 tutors this year, for instance, only five are boys.
He and the other two founders hope to attract more boys via sports. Beginning in January, boys from the Jean-Eudes basketball team will assist the coach at St-Nom-de-Jésus.
Thibert, a student in the McGill School of Environment, says one reason he helped set up Horizons is because he would have liked the chance to participate in such a program when he was at Jean-Eudes.
"There was very little organized for students who wanted involvement in the community. That's frequently the case in high schools, no matter what the milieu."
Both Thibert and Vaillancourt got their taste for helping disadvantaged kids during 1998-2000 while studying at Upper Canada College. As luck would have it, Peter Dalglish, a UCC old boy and founder of Street Kids International, was teaching at the Toronto private school and started up Horizons UCC, in which the two Jean-Eudes students participated.
Once back in Montreal, the duo plus Létourneau were determined to set up a similar project here with their old high school. It wasn't easy. While primary schools were interested in participating, the Commission scolaire de Montréal wasn't keen on working with a private school. It took a letter from Thibert to the Ministry of Education to get a meeting with school commissioner Robert Cadotte, who ultimately supported the project.
Now that the program with École St-Nom-du-Jésus is well established, Vaillaincourt, Thibert and Létourneau are looking to expand on the western and northeastern horizons. Beginning in January, students from Lower Canada College will tutor children at St. Ignatius of Loyola school. Similarly, students from Ecole Secondaire Joseph-François-Perrault, in St-Michel, will tutor children at École Sans Frontière.
Vaillancourt emphasizes that Horizons is not a one-way street where rich teenagers help poor kids. For one, not all the student-volunteers, such as many from Joseph-François Perrault, come from well-to-do homes. "I want to show that teenagers are willing to participate in their community. This program is for both age groups and I'd like to see it become a model to be widely implemented."
A student in Inter-national Development Studies, Vaillancourt sees engendering a sense of community in teen-agers as essential to their becoming citizens of the world.
"At Lower Canada College, I asked the students how many had been to Paris or London. Two out of three raised their hands. When I asked how many had been to Hochelaga-Maison-neuve, two raised their hands.
"I feel that people need to be citizens of where they're from before belonging to the wider world."
Likewise, the primary school children have the opportunity to leave their immediate community and experience that of their tutors. Last year, for instance, the children from St-Nom-de-Jésus visited Jean-Eudes and were treated to a special meal.
"It's good for our children to see other neighbourhoods," says Vice-Principal Frenette. "It's their tutors and teachers that bring them the outside world."
Last fall, Horizons received $2,000 in encouragement from the Quebec government when the project made the finals in the category "Entraide, paix et justice" in the Gala Forces Avenir 2002. The organization also received funding from the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation that will allow them to pay for the transportation of the tutors, snacks and scholarly materials.