News & Stories

Sharing the Joy of Volunteering: Making a Difference Together

By Lee-Ann Scott, Ottawa Volunteers in Education Program Director for ONFE

Laurie Kavanaugh, Principal at Charles Hulse Public School, with Sheila and Eric.

Sheila, an epidemiologist retired from the federal government, and her partner Eric, a retired uOttawa engineering professor, were driving past Charles Hulse Public School one day when Sheila said, “That school needs my help!” That was just the beginning of their ‘retirement’ and what is now three years of volunteer service for Sheila and Eric Dubois at this diverse socio-economically challenged school.

Sheila is an energetic force who volunteers extensively, supporting staff at Charles Hulse doing whatever is needed. Eric frequently joins her and they work together on the latest volunteer activities Sheila has identified. “We just want to help!” is their mantra, and teachers appreciate all the support these two committed volunteers can offer. The list of volunteer activities these two are in involved in is very long.

Sheila helps run a crochet knit club on Tuesdays teaching young students new skills. She also helps a student with individualized speech exercises.

Rakayah and Daniela, two students who were in the founding group of the crochet knit club, are proud of what they learned and what they teach to other students. “I like how peaceful it is. It gives you a moment to think,” Daniela says. Rakayah talks about how the crochet knit club has changed over the past 3 years. “At the beginning, it was, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I join?’ Now it is, ‘I want to learn to knit and crochet!’ Last year the library was full of students who wanted to join.” Sheila reports, “There is a long wait list of students who want to join the crochet knit club—we are in need of at least 4 more volunteers and donations of yarn.”

Rakayah and Daniela both speak four languages, sharing English as the common language. They confidently report that they are now life-long knitters. Both girls have taught their cousins how to knit. Rakayah shares her feelings about learning a new skill, “It gave me the opportunity to try something new. It got me out of my comfort zone in crafting.”

Newcomer students join the crochet knit club and in addition to learning a new craft, they practice speaking English in a safe encouraging environment. The first project students start with is a wristlet/armband or a scarf moving onto mini purses, and then mittens. Once they have mastered the skill – the sky is the limit. Sheila provides good, clean yarn for the students who look up patterns on the internet or browse through donated knitting books. “Knitting and crochet teaches perseverance and focus. It’s a non-competitive, fine motor skill activity done in small groups with lots of conversation.” In June Sheila helps prepare take home kits with yarn, hooks, and patterns. The students come back in September for a show-and-tell of their summer projects.

Educator Cathrine Dunlop oversees the crochet knit club, and says “Sheila and Eric are incredibly attentive to the needs of our young students. Last year, the grade 3 class discovered the game ‘Checkers’. Everyone wanted to play, so having only one set of checkers made for a lot of waiting. One morning, I emailed the couple to request they keep an eye out for second-hand checker games and by 10:30am the same day a set showed up wrapped with a lovely note! The Dubois family had donated a game of checkers from their home.”

“I have worked with  Sheila for two years now and her kindness, talent and “can do” attitude never fail to amaze. We feel they are part of our school family.  As Sheila works with our children, she is constantly giving them positive messages about trying new things and taking pride in ones’ work.”

Eric Dubois assists educator Casey Brown in the grade 6 robotics club as part of the technology education curriculum, providing a rich exposure to hands on activities for the students. Mr. Brown found a box of old robotics equipment in the school, but there were issues with connecting it to the school computers. When Eric spoke with colleagues at uOttawa about this problem, the Faculty of Engineering donated four new Lego Mindstorm robots to the school, allowing the club to use the latest technology. Later, when two of the school’s Chromebooks that are used to program the robots were not working well, Eric spoke with local firm MindBridge Analytics Inc., and they donated two replacement Chromebooks to the school. Eric starts by having the students build simple robots that follow directions in a maze followed by increasingly challenging projects. He plans challenges and experiments for the students to write the computer programs telling the robot what to do. The students learn to follow logical series of tasks as well as teamwork. Mr. Brown is very grateful for Eric’s support: “We are learning along with the students, he’s educating the educators. Eric provides enriched learning of all different levels of literacy. The students learn how to participate in teamwork during this hands-on visual learning and computer programming. They learn how to keep trying until the project is successful.” Eric also set up a webpage for the robotics club. “The kids look forward to the club every week. It’s a highlight and they are learning a lot.”

“He is a really fun guy. He brings robotic challenges for us each week that are challenging, but not too challenging. Eric has taught me a lot about programing the EV3 robots,” says Dante, a Grade 6 student.  Shuaib adds, “He helps us work through the robotic challenges. When we have a problem with the robots, he helps us. Eric makes the challenges fun and educational.”

Sheila and Eric also do volunteer work at home. In the spring of 2016, they began a 5-year plan to replace some of the dated hands-on learning materials and resources in the school’s classrooms, finding many replacement items at community garage sales. Starting with wish lists they request from the school’s educators each spring, they generate a master shopping list, then head out early on Saturday mornings to look for gently used children’s books, building blocks, activity books, art supplies, knitting and crochet supplies—you name it. Back home they sort by teacher/class, ready to make deliveries to the classrooms.

As well, they have let their family, friends, and neighbours know that they are happy to accept donations of gently used clothing for all ages as well as children’s books, toys, etc. They sort by season and make any needed minor repairs before making deliveries to two community organizations that support local families. One of these is Charles Hulse Public School. Another benefit they see of being retired: they can make these deliveries during the workweek.

Sheila and Eric have also begun helping the school principal Laurie Kavanagh write applications to private and business foundations for things that are needed by Charles Hulse students but are not covered in the school budget. First, there was an application to the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation for new books for the school library. In January, everyone was thrilled when the school received $10,000 in electronic gift cards. Also, in the works are applications for new skate helmets and for replacing the worn furniture in the library. Of particular interest, they are helping with applications to obtain funding for creating a Maker Space in the school library, a space that provides opportunities for hands-on design and building activities, a space for students to learn new skills and vocabulary. Sarah Dillon-Randall, the school’s volunteer coordinator and resource teacher, says, “The school’s new Maker Space will provide hands on learning that appeals to kinetic learners. It teaches the students to have a growth mindset, something all students need to learn.”

Summing up, school principal, Laurie Kavanagh says, “Sheila and Eric are gifts to the school. We could never do all they do for the school. They work with several teachers and help with whatever is needed.”

In addition to the volunteer work they do at Charles Hulse Public School, Sheila and Eric developed a bursary and scholarship website for students attending Ridgemont High School next door, working closely with the guidance teacher. The information on this website is regularly updated and reminders are posted when deadlines for application are approaching.  

Volunteering together and becoming immersed in the school community brings both of them great joy!

Through the Ottawa Volunteers in Education/OttawaReads Program, more than 1,500 community members are volunteering over 206,784 hours in 152 local schools to support over 58,850 students annually–a donated value of over 4 million dollars!

To learn more about these and other Ottawa Network for Education programs please visit 

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