Photo by Ewan Nicholson Credits: Photo by Ewan Nicholson
At Father Lacombe High School in Calgary, Simon spoke of his dream of building a school in his native village, and so Simon's Project was born.
How Simon built a school
Through public-speaking and fundraising events, including a run (aptly named Simon's Run), Simon successfully built the school and reconnected with his family, whom he had long presumed dead.
He's now partnering with Youth Organizing to Understand Conflict and Advocate Nonviolence (YOUCAN), a peer conflict-resolution organization. Simon's efforts have earned him the Me to We In the Community award. His $5,000 award money will be donated to YOUCAN Ottawa.
Canadian Living: You have made a difference in the world. What motivated you?
Simon Atem: What makes me contribute is what I went through. My life was miserable, but I changed it to be positive. When I started my project in high school, we started very small. I told people I wanted to build a school in my country. There were a lot of questions: How will we build a school? I told them money will come. Word spread across the country and all over the world.
CL: Have there been hurdles along the way?
Simon: You know, sometimes people discourage you. It happened to me with students from my country. They said, "You're embarrassing us. Not everyone went to a refugee camp. You need to stop this." Marc [Kielburger] said we are the leaders for today. It doesn't mean you'll be the prime minister. You're a leader where you are.
Page 1 of 2 -- Find out what inspired Simon to make a change on page 2
CL: Was there an 'Aha! moment' that reaffirmed your mission?
Simon: The first time I went back to my country in almost 13 years was in 2008. People were waiting for me. When I look at that I say to myself, Simon, don't give up. These children are hoping that one day they will sit in a classroom. Now, I have six classrooms. There are 987 students and 530 are girls. There is so much to do. These people are always driving me. It's like music in my mind; I'm always thinking about them.
CL: How does this award compare to those experiences?
Simon: This award is for everyone who is making changes. I don't know where they are or know them, but we are all the winners of this award.
CL: So what's next for you?
Simon: I need to raise $7,000 to build a kitchen for the school to provide meals for the students. I need to raise money to buy desks. The students are sitting on the floor, and the teacher is too. There is no high school and I don't have the money to get students to a place where there is one, so I'm looking to add more classrooms.
CL: Final word?
Simon: I would like to thank everyone for the time you took to make the world a better place.
Honourable mentions for Me to We's In the Community award
• Laura Daly and her brother, Ryan, started GetRecD in 2003. Ryan passed away from leukemia in 2008, but Laura continues the group's work, running recreational events in Toronto. She donates the proceeds to help cancer patients with their expenses.
• Stacy Greanya was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after going through several horrific events in her childhood. She has channelled her experiences into helping others as the founder and head of SupportWorks, a nonprofit that helps Calgarians living with mood disorders.