It all happened during the summer of 2011. I was in charge of a group of teenagers going overseas on an exchange program and that is where I crossed path with George, a young 18 years old Inuk from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
That summer, George had been selected to attend the Australia exchange, a very long way from his isolated northern community. He arrived in Ottawa with a small bag and very few personal items. Soon after his arrival, we found out that he had nothing of the basic travel items (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.) and almost none of the required clothes. When we asked him why, he shyly admitted that he hadn’t forgotten to pack his things; he just didn’t have them. In his community, not a lot of those items were available and affordable so he just left without. At that time, I really felt bad for asking, but I felt even worst that George did not have all he needed for this trip. That night, I went back home and made a small bag of the basic necessities so he would have his own and would stop borrowing. I also grabbed the box of clothes my husband was going to donate, maybe something would fit George? The next day, George came by to try on some clothes. He tried a few things and when he came out with a blue shirt and the brand new pair of cords my husband never wore, he was looking down at his toes. He seemed very shy in his grown up clothes. He said that the sleeves were a bit short, but that the rest was ok, without looking up. I tried to encourage him and told him blue was a good color for him. He turned red and smiled a little. He went back into his changing room and came back with what fit. He put his new clothes in a bag and left to go and pack it up. I didn’t say anything to him because I did not want to embarrass him. On his way out, he met another adult staff he knew from before. He proceeded to show her all of his clothes and all the combination he could make. He was over the moon and that made my heart melt a little.
In order for the teenagers to go on exchange, they had to pass a physical fitness test to ensure they would be able to do all the activities offered. Sometimes, some of those kids can’t go because we fear for their safety and level of participation. Our youth come from everywhere in Canada and meet in Ottawa before leaving for their destinations. In George’s case, he was not used to Ontario’s climate at all and he did not pass the fitness test. I should have recommended that he not attend the exchange but I just couldn’t do it. He had worked so hard to get there with so little, how could I deny him this opportunity knowing he would perform well? On top of that, the rest of his group had gathered around him and during those preparation days, he had somewhat become the group ‘mascot’ and everybody cheered for him. He was now called ‘Georgie’.
Of the week I spent with ‘Georgie’, I never saw him being negative. He was a genuinely happy person. He always had a smile on his face and always helped his group. He was not your stereotypical outgoing leader by any means but his soothing attitude that made him able to relate to all.
In my organization, it is not every day you get to meet an insightful young man like George. After 13 years of being an adult staff, I was a bit jaded with the process, the politics and was thinking of calling it quits. Without knowing it, Georges, my somewhat customer, had sparked the little flame again and made me realize why I was volunteering my time and why I had chosen this organization. He showed me that it matters.
George had an awesome time in Australia and the trip gave him the motivation to do something else with his life (yes, I keep track of him from afar). He will never know what he did for me and the impact he had on my career, but I am grateful I met him and I trusted his abilities.