Positive Change Through Immense Tragedy

Positive Change Through Immense Tragedy

BY LARA UNSWORTH '95, HEAD OF COMMUNITY RELATIONS

As an alumna who remembers February 1, 2003, as clear as day, a parent of a current STS student who has many adventures on the horizon, and an employee who witnesses the inner workings of our safety protocols first-hand, I, for one, am so grateful for that deep connection, trust, and sense of support we share.

It is hard to comprehend that this year marked the 20th anniversary of the most heartbreaking time in our school’s history. On February 1, 2003, an avalanche resulted in the tragic loss of seven STS students. The event left an indelible mark on countless people’s lives and created ripples across the globe – many, whether they were part of the STS community or not, remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the horrific news.

Parents held their children a bit tighter, classmates forged bonds never to be broken, flowers sold out across the city, and there was a far-reaching, palpable, deep sorrow. More than 20 years later, members of our STS community – alumni, current and former employees, classmates, and of course, more than anyone, the families of the children lost – are still profoundly affected by this event.

So, how does a deeply intertwined community live with and move forward from such a pivotal time of grief? Is it possible to create something positive from such an immense tragedy? The answer is 100 percent yes, we must. It is our duty to ensure that we do all we can to honour Ben, Daniel, Scott, Alex, Michael, Marissa, and Jeffrey through positive change.

Our Head of School, Carol Grant-Watt says, “Our community of more than 10,000 alumni, and current families, students and employees believe in STS and play active roles in ensuring we continue to honour those lost, while doing everything possible to create safe and inspirational conditions for students to learn and flourish – whether that takes place in a classroom, in the backcountry, or anywhere around the globe. It is a sacred trust that each of us holds dear.”

As such, 20 years later, we felt it was important to share the abundant good that has come from unfathomable loss.

LEADERSHIP IN SAFETY

On a global scale, much has changed as a result of the avalanche involving the STS student group in terms of safety protocols and systems. New terrain rating and avalanche safety systems were developed, and the Canadian Avalanche Centre was created as a non-government, non-profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety. Other key changes were made to the Parks Canada Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) and Custodial Groups policy and regulations addressing the risk tolerance for youths. Due to this policy, custodial groups are no longer allowed in terrain rated as "complex," i.e. Connaught Valley where STS used to take students. With these important modifications, the fervent hope is that through tragic lessons learned, future lives have been and will continue to be saved across the world.

Closer to home, safety has become a core value at STS and a central pillar in all decision-making. One exemplar of this commitment is that we are one of only a few schools with a Certificate of Recognition (COR), which is a government approved safety program that awards employers who develop health and safety management systems which meet established provincial standards.

STS has a robust internal safety and risk management system and has dedicated considerable resources to staffing and managing safety to ensure this remains a top-of-mind priority in all that we do – whether it is an international student trip, an outdoor education excursion, an on-campus class activity, or something as seemingly simple as proper use of a ladder to hang a sign – careful consideration and consultation regarding how to keep everyone involved safe, following clear processes, and empowering everyone to be active participants in that process is key.

Annually, all STS employees are required to complete extensive safety training modules, with those leading student trips receiving specialized training specific to each activity and/or destination. There are “safety briefing meetings” for parents before all trips, and dedicated “safety officers” who remain on site when student groups are away, continuously analyzing current conditions (environmental, political, physical, health, etc.) and making adaptations as needed to mitigate risk.

Also, we are now certified by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), a robust accreditation program focused on standards of program quality, professional behaviour, and appropriate risk management in experiential adventure programming.

With these robust systems in place, STS has become a national exemplar in the area of safety and risk management, and we are frequently called upon to assist other schools and organizations in assessing and developing their risk management and safety systems. With all of that said, this is not a finite process with a clear endpoint. STS's commitment to continue improving its culture of safety and, more broadly, playing a role in promoting high watermarks for safety remains a priority every day, at every opportunity. With our school motto, Nil nisi optimum, at the root of all that we do, we will relentlessly strive for nothing but our best in safety.

The legacies 20 years later...

HONOUR DAY

Each year on February 1st, STS holds Honour Day, where we come together to honour and celebrate Ben, Daniel, Scott, Alex, Michael, Marissa, and Jeffrey while advancing a legacy of positive change and experiences that will continue long into the future. After the 10th anniversary of the avalanche, we respectfully moved the event to more of a celebratory focus, hosting a speaker who inspires our community to live their best lives. This year’s speaker was Ryan Straschnitzki, a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

THE FOREVER WOODS ENDOWMENT FUNDS

After the avalanche, a group of generous donors established The Forever Woods Endowment Fund. The Fund helps all of us remember and honour the lives of the seven students through scholarships, and special student activities, including:

Forever Woods Scholarship

Three-year scholarships are awarded to students entering Grade 10 at STS in the form of the Forever Woods Scholarship. These prestigious and hard-to-acquire scholarships are given to the top applicants who demonstrate both financial need and impeccable merit (academic, character and leadership), opening doors to amazing students to attend STS who might otherwise not be able to. The personal qualities of five of the student’s lost in 2003 are honoured in keeping with the wishes of their families. As of this year, 180 Forever Woods Scholars have been awarded more than $1 million in scholarship support. These students take their role as Forever Woods Scholars and our school motto, Nil nisi optimum, extremely seriously, doing their best each and every day in honour of those lost and representing STS.

Thoughts of gratitude from Forever Woods Scholars:

"This year I have been working especially hard to strive for a high level of academic achievement while also maintaining a healthy balanced lifestyle. I have many personal  Interests such as fitness, nutrition and art…and I have made sure to put my best efforts to academic excellence like Marissa always did.”

"With the help of this scholarship, I am able to attend STS and to continue to learn and grow in a welcoming and accepting environment. My family and I are incredibly thankful.”

"I am grateful every day to be able to come to a school where teachers and my peers inspire me to grow and to push for excellence… I greatly appreciate being a student who continues to bear Ben Albert's name through the scholarship granted to me."

Dan Arato Day

Every year, Middle School students enjoy a fun-filled day of team-building and creative problem-solving in honour of Dan Arato, known for his humour, joyful disposition, and being a supportive friend to all.

The Alexander F. Pattillo Drama Award and the Pattillo/Bensler Family Theatre Fund

In celebration of Alexander (Alex) Pattillo’s love of performance and the Arts, these programs support students with a similar passion, and help to create unique and inspirational learning experiences. The Patillo/Bensler Family Theatre Fund is also named in honour of fellow 2005 classmate, Megan Bensler, who was tragically lost in a vehicular accident in 2004.

Forever Woods

We have a permanent space on our campus called the Forever Woods, with beautiful statues dedicated to each of the students lost. This remains a very special place where community members go to reflect and where children play.

Continued deep learning and connection in the outdoors 

Every student at STS, in Kindergarten to Grade 12, participates in some form of learning in the outdoors, whether hiking and camping in the backcountry, or learning about the tiny creatures that live in our campus pond in biology class, or drawing wildflowers growing on our campus in art class, and many other outdoor learning experiences, as this is fundamental to our core and achieving STS’s
mission of students pursuing lives of purpose, flourishing emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

We wholeheartedly believe that outdoor learning creates a living curriculum where students can benefit from deep learning, authentic personal connections with classmates and teachers, and engagement in their natural surroundings, which builds resiliency, curiosity, humility, respect, excellence, and joy – all key values at STS. Well-designed outdoor learning experiences teach life skills through natural environments, not just technical skills, and will remain a unique and vital aspect of an STS education.

Our rich history, past tragedy, deep-rooted ties, and shared focus on leading positive change for future generations connects our STS family in a profound and complicated way.

As an alumna who remembers February 1, 2003, as clear as day, a parent of a current STS student who has many adventures on the horizon, and an employee who witnesses the inner workings of our safety protocols first-hand, I, for one, am so grateful for that deep connection, trust, and sense of support we share.

Together, we live our best lives and build towards a better future. That is the true lasting legacy we can all play a role in.

"To be held in our hearts forever"


The Calla Lilies

BY DEBRA CARLSON, FORMER FACULTY

Art, in all its forms, has always been intertwined with the journey of healing. The Calla Lillies paintings, originally completed by the Art 20 class in 2004, exemplify our students' heart, drive, and reason to create as they navigated tragedy. Students were so engaged in every step of the process because it meant paying tribute to their friends lost in a tragic avalanche the previous year in a lasting and personal way. Black and white oil pastel sweeps across Stonehenge paper, capturing new light, textures, and expression of the flowers – each piece imbued with the powerful emotions of their individual creators.

I was whole-heartedly impressed to see the STS community come together the following year through the incredible support from Barb Knowlton to include the paintings in the Black Watch Ball as a fundraiser for the creation of the Forever Woods. It is a true credit to the nature of the STS community in our dedication to always honour, celebrate, and remember.

The 13 calla lily paintings are by:

Charly Mckenna, Christie Ang, Ellen Burch, Fatimah Rehman, Genevieve Mateyko, Heidi Schott, Kathyn Stewart, Katy Whitt, Matt Sawchuk, Megan Adams, Rosanna Marmont, Spencer Purdy, Will Johnson (all Class of 2005)

 

Published in the 2023 edition of Optimum Magazine