During the Vietnamese refugee crisis, church congregations had an enormous impact, as they sponsored the majority of the 60,000 refugees who arrived in Canada.

An educator in Toronto hopes in the Syrian refugee crisis, schools can play the role churches did in that crisis decades ago.

Kelly Gallagher-MacKay is a mother of two school-aged children and an education researcher. She wants to teach young people what it means to become active citizens through her Thousand Schools Challenge.

She's organized several hundred families through Dewson Public School in downtown Toronto to sponsor a refugee family — and she's challenging school communities across the country to do the same.

She says right now there are 17 schools — four joining this week alone — involved in the program.

Most of the participating schools are in Toronto, and the majority of those are in the city's west end. But there is also one from Calgary and one from Kamloops, B.C..

Gallagher-MacKay has been surprised by the results so far.

"The first surprise was the huge amount of interest," she said. "Of 400 families, 300 responded."

She raised $37,000 in a couple of weeks with donations ranging from $10 to a handful in the $2,000 range.

A family of five from Syria is now coming to Toronto. A group called Lifeline Syria, working with the United Church, identified a family that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said was particularly vulnerable, and the school applied to bring them over by the end of this year.

The program even made it into the Grade 6 curriculum, in a lesson about making social change.

"When children are asked to write about what they would need if they were refugees," said Gallagher-MacKay, "they say we would need a friend and a safe place to live."

The children are also doing more traditional fundraising, such as holding bake sales, to raise money. 

A goal of the Thousand Schools program is to help to humanize a huge global issue. "By sponsoring one family, rather than trying to solve a huge problem, it makes it doable," she said.

"It's about being an active learner. Schools have always had a role in training people to be citizens, but this is about seeing your own ability to create change."

Interested schools can learn more on the Thousand Schools Challenge website.