By Rina Barone Published April 16, 2021 The Creemore Echo
Lifelong teacher and committed RAYS volunteer Heather Rowell says there’s one thing we can all do to set up our kids for success: be their cheerleader. “I’m a true believer of a significant other. You need someone in your life, a cheerleader, someone who’s there for you unconditionally and holds you accountable,” Rowell says. “My parents were my significant others.”
As a young girl Rowell knew that she wanted to be a teacher, and she told herself that if she could somehow get herself to summer camp, she’d be well on her way. “I knew if I could be a camp counsellor that it would be a stepping stone to becoming a teacher,” she says. But how does a 12-year-old farm girl from Avening find the $32 needed to go to camp? “You buy a pig,” Rowell says. “You go to Elmvale, buy a pig, feed it, take care of it, and then you go to market. You get a cheque, and then you go to camp,” she says. “My parents supported me every step of the way.”
It was that security net and support that gave Rowell the foundation she needed and enabled her to take risks throughout her life, from the early decision to put her hard-earned pig money towards summer camp, to leaving Avening for university, to moving with her geologist husband to Lively, just outside of Sudbury (where they lived for 26 years), to carving out a rewarding career spanning 24 years that started by teaching young offenders to eventually finding her niche as a beloved and engaged grade school teacher. She always knew that her significant others were there for her, rooting for her, and if all else failed, she could always ask for help.
Since returning home five years ago, after retiring, it wasn’t long before Rowell found an outlet for her passion for kids and education in the town where she grew up. “My passion is setting kids up for success by learning enough about them to know how to best support them,” Rowell says. “It’s a whole community that raises a child, you find a child’s strength and run with it.”
She soon started volunteering at the local Creemore school helping young kids learn to read, and quickly learned of RAYS (Resources for Area Youth Success) and their mission in the community.
“RAYS provides a security net and the mentoring piece,” Rowell says. “As a mentor you’re a small anchor for these young people, you’re a cheerleader. You have these bright scholarship winners, and many of them don’t need assistance, but for many of them, they are the first in their family to go to university, and being a part of their support system is incredibly valuable.”
Since 2012, RAYS has awarded over $350,000 in scholarships and bursaries to local high school students pursuing post-secondary education.
“RAYS matched my personal philosophy on education and helping young people,” Rowell says. “I’ve been raised with ‘you give back to your community’. If I can help the Grade 4-5 class at school, if I can help kids learn to read, if we all look at the skills we can give, doesn’t that make a better community?”
In the fall of 2016, Rowell joined both the scholarship and bursary committees as a volunteer helping out with the committee’s needs, working on post-secondary school outreach, and being a mentor to students.
“Heather is a champion for the well-being and future success of all local students,” says Barbara Lemaire, chair of the Scholarship Committee, who’s worked closely with Heather for the past few years. At RAYS, a Creemore-based organization, every volunteer counts and everyone is integral to its overall success. In 2020, RAYS awarded three high school students each a $20,000 scholarship for university and 11 high school students received bursaries up to $1,000 for college or apprenticeship programs. With each scholarship or bursary awarded, a mentor is available to help the student navigate the post-secondary transition and set them up for success.
This past year alone Rowell, one of more than 30 RAYS volunteers, mentored one scholarship student and four bursary students. “It’s a check in,” Rowell says. “How are you doing? What can I help you with?” Rowell’s volunteer work with RAYS is enriching and rewarding, and allows her to be a part of the student’s support system. “Everyone needs cheerleaders.”