Ten years ago, Jen Fitzpatrick was running a literacy campaign for foster kids when she met a seven-year-old boy who didn’t know how to read--he was angry, frustrated, and struggling.
She’s telling us this story because one year ago, at the time she started her business, FEMM International, that little boy took the stage as a high school graduate enrolled in a Police Foundations program. Unknowingly, Fitzpatrick was there to witness his achievement. “It came full circle that I helped him read, and look at him now,” she said. “That had a big impact on me. I really want kids, especially kids who are suffering from illiteracy, or autism, to get into the classroom,” she said.
Fitzpatrick will launch a pilot project in November called Classroom Connections, to connect Canadian youth in grades seven and eight with mentors. “We want to inspire youth to be mindful. We want to show them that they’re doing OK,” said Fitzpatrick. We recently sat down to discuss the program, why it’s needed, and how entrepreneurs can get involved:
YouInc: Why did you start FEMM International?
Jen Fitzpatrick: I was a teacher for eight years. I knew I wanted to get back into the classroom, but I didn’t want to be a teacher full-time. So, this way I’m getting back to work with the children. We’re starting with grades seven and eight, and we’re connecting students with mentors around the world once a month. Topics can cover anything like stigmas, drug addiction, and mental health.
The biggest impact you can have on kids is in the classroom. You can’t get into their homes and change their home lives. So it starts at school.
There are about 200 million female entrepreneurs, so for me, it felt like why not start here? Why not try to get female entrepreneurs involved as mentors to these kids from all walks of life? We’re not exclusive to female entrepreneurs--there are men who’ve approached me to be part of the program.
YI: So, the basis of the program is emotional support?
JF: That’s a big part of it, that they're relating in a way that maybe someone was on social assistance, overcame that, and now they’re successful. If there’s a school that has a high rate of suicide, then we’ll try to get mentors who are survivors or social workers to target those issues.
It depends on the school and what they're looking for. There’s one gentleman who wants to be a mentor, and he didn’t do well in school; now he has his own business. It’s showing youth that there’s an opportunity out there for them.
A lot of kids don’t like school, so you want to show them that it’s OK, and that you can get through it and you can still be successful. Maybe a mentor dropped out of high school and got addicted to drugs and lost their way for a while; it’s about preventing that situation from happening to someone else.
YI: What do you want to achieve with the program?
JF: Be in 1,000 schools across Canada by 2020. We want to inspire youth to be mindful. Grade seven and eight is an important age group, before they get to high school. There are a lot of things going on with their bodies and minds, so we thought we’d target that group to start. We want to show them whether they’re doing OK, whether they're struggling or being cyber-bullied or feeling shameful about their bodies.
YI: What are you doing differently than other mentoring services?
JF: Trying to get many different people in a room for conversations including global leaders, entrepreneurs, students, teachers, and youth, as opposed to only entrepreneurs, only teachers, or only students. It’s bringing together many groups of people and trying to target things like illiteracy, or things in old education systems and the way students are learning. It’s a conversation about stigmas and stereotypes about many different things. We’re bringing people together to work on it together, and align with existing subjects in the curriculum.
YI: Who do you have as mentors so far?
JF: So far, people who have joined include: Bob Paff, once an actor on House of Cards; Sheryl Taylor, an educator in Quebec; and Mike Szabo, an environmental journalist in the UK.
It’s a small commitment, and it’s free. Mentors can be Skyped in. You could be at home and connect with classrooms anywhere. The kids have to come up with questions and run it like an interview when the mentors connect.
We’re open to encouraging people who have been through something like bankruptcy, or lost their homes to natural disasters, to connect with students and make them aware of what’s happening in the world. We want them to disconnect from video games and the internet and connect with humans.
FEMM International will host a fundraising event in Toronto on October 21.