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Inspire: Jacob Pitawanakwat channels his struggles as a young student into helping other young learners

‘My desire for learning and creativity began with my mom. Her first-hand experiences fuelled my own desire to make a positive difference in the lives of young people’

Jacob Pitawanakwat is helping to make a positive difference in the lives of youth on Manitoulin Island. Seizing opportunities, taking risks and believing in himself have all paved the way for this young man to be a leader, a mentor and catalyst for change. 

Born and raised in Manitowaning, Pitawanakwat, 23, is the son of Jeff and Teina, who are themselves lifelong residents of the Island. The Pitawanakwats’ daughter, Victoria, is 11 months older than her brother. 

“We’re a very tight-knit family,” said Pitawanakwat. “And we’re blessed to share a competitive nature and an unwavering affection for the game of hockey.”

Pitawanakwat’s father, an OPP officer, once played NCAA Division 1 at Michigan State. That passion for the sport was passed on to both children. Victoria followed in her dad’s footsteps, playing two seasons of professional hockey in Rochester. 

“It was super fun to travel to New York State on weekends to watch those games,” said Pitawanakwat.

His dad has coached local youth hockey for several years, and the entire family loves to be involved in the game. 

“Our parents shuttled us all around Ontario and the northern U.S. to watch or participate in tournaments. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate just how much they relinquished to make sure Victoria and I experienced a fulfilling life outside of home and school.”

Reflecting on his parents’ dedication to family and community, Pitawanakwat was enlightened by what can happen when people sacrifice to help others. 

“I’ve always been deeply inspired by their commitment to working for the common good.”  

From the age of 14, Pitawanakwat lived with his maternal grandmother in Sudbury while attending St. Charles College and, subsequently, Laurentian University. As a first-year Honours Bachelor of Commerce student, Pitawanakwat stumbled upon a computer science course. He was instantly attracted to the discipline and took a leap of faith, switching from commerce to majoring in software development.

“After my first year at LU, I took time off school to contemplate my life’s goals and decide on the direction of a career. The global pandemic hit, and I wanted to be closer to my parents and sister after living away for so many years. For me, this time was a personal journey of self-discovery, an opportunity to plan my future.” 

In life and work, Pitawanakwat’s parents are his core inspiration. 

“My desire for learning and creativity began with my mom. She’s a retired primary school teacher with the Wikwemikong Board of Education Wikwemikong Board of Education (WBE). Her first-hand experiences fuelled my own desire to make a positive difference in the lives of young people.”

Pitawanakwat found a way to incorporate his passions for teaching and technology into a career that both empowers young people and strengthens his community.

When he returned to the Island, Pitawanakwat landed a job as a full-time supply teacher with the WBE. “I was motivated by those times volunteering in my mother’s Grade Three class. Working with children was really rewarding and a lot of fun. I discovered that I have a real aptitude for teaching.”

Pitawanakwat said he struggled in school as a young student, and speculated that his desire to help young learners may stem from his own challenges.

“I think that’s because, from an early age, I had difficulties myself academically. I remember being way behind in reading and that challenge followed me into high school. University felt like a big push for me, and I didn’t feel capable of succeeding like other kids would.” 

Those early struggles were frustrating, but they also motivated Pitawanakwat to reverse the situation. With the help of teachers who took time to mentor him, he worked through his literacy challenges and was accepted into university. 

“My advice to kids who are discouraged is to believe in themselves and seek help. Find your own island of confidence instead of looking out at an ocean of inadequacies.”

Pitawanakwat’s determination to improve his own career opportunities naturally led him to want to help other youth to achieve their goals. 

While he was supply teaching, he learned that a global not-for-profit agency would be establishing within the board.  Innovations for Learning (IFL) provides a unique educational support system for teachers by providing individualized classroom instruction and web-based face-to-face learning.

“For example, students not only learn to memorize the alphabet, but to understand the alphabet, and learn the rhythms and intricacies of reading.”

Pitawanakwat was drawn to the program and joined the IFL as an early literacy interventionist. 

“We identify the student’s areas of challenge and customize learning to develop their reading, writing and comprehension skills. That’s right from kindergarten and first grade. We use proprietary software to ensure students improve on an ongoing basis, whether it’s at-home web sessions or utilizing smart phones.” 

His first year working with a school in Wiikwemkoong, the program saw incredible results. Ninety-four per cent of students in the program achieved grade-level reading proficiency.

As time went on, Pitawanakwat became involved with the corporate enrichment tutoring program Corporate Volunteering | Innovations for Learning | Canada — Innovations for Learning , a component of IFL that pairs companies with children to foster their reading skills and build their self-confidence.

Now a program manager with the organization, Pitawanakwat continues his work in the spirit of innovation, developing technology programs, identifying literacy challenges in local schools, and designing learning systems that meet the needs of communities.

And, he is bringing technology and education together in even more creative ways. One new initiative Pitawanakwat is particularly proud to lead is the development of e-books that will be delivered on the IFL platform. 

“They’ll contain stories and art sensitive to Indigenous youth, an important way to improve kids’ literacy skills and encourage them to read through relatable stories and ground them within their culture. My goal is to reach out to more schools and help establish and support these programs in more communities across the country.”

That objective also entails reaching out to companies and professionals who are interested in getting involved in virtual volunteering. In just 30 minutes a week, volunteers will help improve the lives of marginalized youth. 

You can explore this unique opportunity by e-mailing jacob@innovationsforlearning.org.

Jacob Pitawanakwat’s Words of Inspiration

Do good in the world and you’ll be a better person for it. Truth is the word ‘selfless’ is rather a misnomer because giving back benefits you just as much as it does those you are helping. To quote author Napoleon Hill, ‘Every adversary, every failure, every heartbreak, carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.’ Be open to finding your passions by stepping outside your comfort zone. Make that passion your life’s calling. We can overcome challenges when we believe in ourselves.

Marlene Holkko Moore is a local communications professional and regular contributor to Sudbury.com.