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Inspire: Kerry Yang took a simple school project and turned it into a working charity

The Lo-Ellen Park student created a charity that collects and sends school supplies to Far North communities where outfitting a student for school can cost upwards of 10 times more than it does in the south

Like her parents and sister, Kerry Yang grew up believing strongly in the value of education, and that passion has led this community-minded young woman to create a simple but empowering program to help make education more accessible to youth here at home and abroad. 

“My parents are from Guoping, China, descendants of farmers. For anyone in their village to choose a future outside of farming is rare,” said Yang. “I admire their determination to acquire a university education and pursue their life’s goals. The privilege of higher learning is one I don’t take lightly.”

Her father, Dr. Guangdong Yang, is an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Laurentian University (LU). Her mother, Yumin Guo, is employed in accounting at MIRARCO. Older sister, Kelly, recently graduated from the University of Toronto and is planning a career in investment banking.

“My parents were born and raised in the same region of central China, just southwest of the nation’s capital, Beijing. They’ve actually known each other since kindergarten.” 

Relatives on both sides have lived and farmed in China’s rural region of Shanxi for generations. 

“We visit them every couple of years. Being part of such a close family, Kelly and I are blessed to have maintained our Chinese language skills and nurture the rich cultural traditions of our grandparents,” she said.

“My sister was born in China, and I was born in Saskatchewan. Our family lived out west for a number of years before relocating to Thunder Bay, where my dad studied and taught at Lakehead University.” 

A teaching opportunity at LU brought the Yangs to Sudbury in 2015.

Growing up, Yang was blessed with an array of opportunities to volunteer at events hosted by the local Chinese community. Her parents also encouraged their girls to study music, dance and skating, and to support others through their talents.

An advanced pianist, Yang began teaching rudimentary piano in 2019 until the first pandemic lockdown was imposed. Having been involved in the art of traditional Chinese dance since the age of eight, she has always enjoyed dancing and performing on the piano at cultural events.

That desire to give back also held true in sports. 

“I especially loved figure skating and enjoyed being a trainer with CanSkate, Canada’s official ‘learn to skate’ program. My sister and I have been so fortunate that our parents encouraged us to try a little bit of everything,” Yang said. “That mentorship, and their commitment to driving Kelly and me to events and classes, is what has helped us develop so many different interests. My mom and dad have always been active in the community. Their desire to help others and commitment to supporting our Chinese heritage have been truly inspiring.

“It is so important to keep cultural traditions alive. It’s too easy for children of immigrants to lose connection with their ancestors and family customs. That’s a shame because appreciating your roots gives you a sense of pride. Sharing your heritage contributes to your community’s diversity and inclusivity.”

A Grade 11 student in the international baccalaureate program at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, Yang is fluent in English, French and Chinese. As a child living in Thunder Bay, she volunteered at language classes, assisting other youngsters learn to read and write Chinese. She also helped them understand the basics of the language. 

“At such a young age, I didn’t really have a label for what I was doing. I didn’t realize it was volunteering. I just wanted to help out wherever I could,” she said.

“My parents’ unwavering support means so much. I’m inspired every day by their dedication to family and community. Their guidance has helped me discover my passions and pursue my goals with confidence.”

A high school assignment in 2019 precipitated Yang’s school supply drive project. 

“We were assigned to identify a problem and create a solution. With a focus on how to improve educational opportunities, I researched that challenge in less-developed areas of the world.” 

Yang took it a step beyond a simple school assignment. She sourced a U.S.-based organization called Develop Africa, which identifies impoverished communities. 

“They welcome new and gently used school supplies to help fulfil the basic educational needs of students, and they also take care of shipping all donated supplies. I was excited to design my solution and put it into practice.”

And so, the Sudbury School Supplies Drive was launched. 

With donations from the community and area businesses, the program helps support low-income families who are facing the high cost of tuition, supplies, clothing and basic necessities for their children to attend school. 

“In that first year, we were able to provide Develop Africa with almost 300 supplies, which they distributed to families in Kenya, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Gambia.”

Yang then researched Canadian communities confronted with the same challenges. 

“I was stunned to learn that, in the Far North, school supplies like pens, pencils and rulers can cost more than 10 times what we would normally pay. Barriers to education are not limited to underdeveloped countries. Families closer to home are facing similar problems.”

That revelation inspired Yang to apply for a government grant and seek potential community partners to provide school supplies for students in rural and remote areas of Canada.

In the 2020-2021 school year, more than 3,000 school supplies were contributed and purchased to fill nearly 150 backpacks, which were also donated. 

“I know Greater Sudbury is a generous community, but I didn’t expect such a huge response in our second year of operation, and especially not during a global health pandemic. It’s deeply touching and I’m eternally grateful to everyone who contributed.”

Several communities in Canada’s Far North benefited, including Wapekeka First Nation in the northwestern Ontario’s Kenora District, the hamlet of Aklavik in the Northwest Territories’ Inuvik Region, and two Nunavut communities, Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island and Qikiqtarjuaq in Iqaluit.

Here in Greater Sudbury, the Northern Initiative for Social Action and Our Children Our Future each received donations. 

Yang’s program has also benefited clients of two not-for-profit organizations helping less-fortunate families in larger cities through Share the Warmth, which is based in Montreal, and Moorelands Kids, located in Toronto. 

“It’s so rewarding to know that the school supplies contributed will help students, low-income families, and their schools and summer camps.”

Earlier this year, Yang’s friend, Jennifer Qiu, approached her own school about adding a donation box. 

“I was thrilled to receive Marymount Academy’s permission to do so, and I’m optimistic that more schools will come on board in future,” Yang said.

Encouraged by the ongoing community support, Yang intends to continue her program. But 2021-2022 is her last year at Lo-Ellen. 

“I’m hoping that, once I graduate, another student or team of young people will take the lead and bring on board even more volunteers, supporters and schools.”

Yang is happy to connect with anyone interested in information or how to get involved in the school supply drive. She can be reached at sudburyschoolsupplydrive@gmail.com.

Not one to sit still, Kerry Yang is already working on another initiative. 

“Students tend to abandon learning during summer break, but it’s vital to keep up with our studies.” 

Yang’s plan to design a “mailbox reading” system will undoubtedly appeal to children in her own neighbourhood.

“I’m also continuing to research the needs of communities so we can carry on supporting children’s education. Everyone deserves the opportunity to learn without barriers.”

To Yang, volunteering has always come naturally. 

“I think it’s because my community involvement has always been linked to what I’m passionate about, which is why my experiences cover a wide range of fields, including science and social issues.”

Her interest in science started in Grade 5, when Yang began participating in school science fairs. 

“I fell in love with the curiosity and inquisitiveness of research and how it's often linked to improving your community and helping others.” 

By 2018, the then 13-year-old was lauded for her successful project aimed at reversing heavy metals-induced antibiotic resistance in the body. She was subsequently invited to compete in the Canada-wide Science Fair which hosts 500 participants. Yang’s dedication and talents earned her a gold medal and recognition as Best Junior Project (related to health). That led to an invitation to showcase her research before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

“What an incredible experience to meet him and visit Parliament Hill.” 

The following year, Yang also earned a silver medal and scholarship to the York University STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Science) Entrepreneurship Program. At 16, she has already accumulated $6,000 in university scholarships. 

“I developed a passion for community health and medicine which inspires my goal to pursue a career in medicine, in the North specifically. This year, my project focused on the reversal of bacteria-driven colorectal cancer by dandelion root extracts. It won the title of best project at the regional fair and I will be participating in the national fair again this spring. I’m hoping my experience with research will continue past high school and that I’ll be able to help millions of people one day.”

Helping those millions has already had a strong start.

Yang mentors other science fair participants and volunteers at various STEM-related organizations. “I believe young people have huge potential to make a difference, and I want to encourage as many students as possible to maximize their impact.”

In 2019, she became a “bluecoat” volunteer at Science North. Yang has enjoyed enlightening visitors about fourth-floor exhibits and the planetarium, conducting presentations and answering questions, and doing so in both official languages. Her knowledge and enthusiasm led to part-time employment with the science centre. 

Today, Yang is also a member of the Student Science Advisory Committee, a group that organizes events and programs to involve youth in science. She is a reviewer and editor with two scientific journals that publish student research, Youth STEM Matters and the Young Scientists Journal. She also serves as director of research at the Youth Health Sciences Association where she manages a team conducting seasonal community research. A strong advocate of social justice, science and mental health, Yang has submitted articles to several magazines and blogs. 

“The simple act of volunteering can lead to even more rewarding opportunities.”

Kerry Yang’s Words of Inspiration

Doing good and helping others is inherent in everyone, especially in young people. But kids are often discouraged to get involved in community initiatives because people think that volunteer responsibilities and major projects should be left to adults. 

Her message to youth: You can make a positive difference. Don’t be deterred from pursuing your life’s passions and community service just because you haven’t experienced the reality and responsibilities of adulthood. Don’t let your young age preclude you from taking a chance and exploring your dreams. There’s lots of support out there; interacting with others and communicating with adults will only build your self-confidence.

To adults: Tune in to your children’s potential and encourage them from an early age to try something new. Introduce them to community service and help them test out their abilities and discover their passions. Young people have the energy and enthusiasm to learn quickly and get the job done. The efforts of young people can equally contribute to improving our world. Their passions can be channelled into empowerment that is capable of sparking positive change. 

Community work is one of the best ways to acquire new skills and learn how to be well-organized. You may even have an opportunity to take on progressive responsibilities and lead projects. For me, those opportunities have helped me pursue my passions for science and social justice, and I know my career will involve both.

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