New Brunswick

Rothesay, N.B., girl wins international award for hurricane relief project

A 15-year-old girl from Rothesay, N.B., has won an international education award for her work to create a pre-school building from retired shipping containers for the Caribbean island of Dominica, devastated last year by Hurricane Maria.

Heather Chisholm, 15, lands Kurt Hahn Prize for her innovative plan to provide school for Caribbean island

Heather says the design plans have to take into consideration everything from the need to use termite-resistant wood to proper ventilation of the steel containers in a tropical climate. (CBC)

A 15-year-old girl from Rothesay, N.B., has won an international education award for her work to create a pre-school building from retired shipping containers for the Caribbean island of Dominica, devastated last year by Hurricane Maria.

Heather Chisholm, a Grade 10 student at Rothesay Netherwood School, came up with the idea last summer, inspired in part by the Area 506 Festival in Saint John, which featured a shipping container village.

Since then, she has secured shipping containers with the help of a local businessman, worked with local architects, engineers and tradespeople on design plans, developed a budget and timeline and recruited 24 classmates to help with everything from fundraising to gathering furnishings, equipment and school supplies.

All this while juggling a rigorous academic program and demanding athletic schedule.

'Determination to dream big'

"Heather is an amazing individual and she very much deserves this award," said her former art teacher Tia Saley, who has been working with her on the Schools for Schools project, and nominated her for the Round Square Kurt Hahn Prize.

The prize is awarded annually to a student or group of students within Round Square's network of about 180 schools in 50 countries, in recognition of "an exceptional act of service to others."

"It's about the ideals of Round Square, which are internationalism, democracy, environmentalism, adventure, leadership and service. And this project embodies all of those things, as does Heather," said Saley.

Teacher Tia Saley said when Heather approached her with the idea, her reaction was, 'this is amazing, let’s do it.'

In her nomination form, she described Heather as "an individual with a huge heart and sheer guts and determination to dream big and then to work hard to make that inconceivable dream someone else's reality."

Heather, who will be formally recognized at a ceremony in Montreal in September, says dreaming comes easily to students like her — "because we have so many opportunities."

She hopes her shipping container school will give children on the small island nation of Dominica a place where they can "dream a little bit.

"I want people to be able to have that opportunity and have an area where they can kind of picture who they want to be … a place where kids can just kind of get away from any of the stresses or any of the struggles in their lives and be inspired."

A look at Hurricane Maria's devastation on the small island nation of Dominica in Sept. 20, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

Dominica is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that delivered winds of 260 km/h, torrential downpours and intense storm surges last September.

It destroyed thousands of homes, knocked out power, contaminated water supplies and decimated crops.

At least 32 people were killed, another 37 went missing.

It's easy to dream and it's easy to think about all the things that you could do, but … to see that it can actually take form is pretty inspiring.- Heather Chisholm, student

Heather had only started sharing her idea for a shippable school when the hurricane hit and didn't yet have a destination selected.

Once she heard reports about the damage in Dominica, where some former RNS students were from, her mind was made up.

"It really just fit and was good timing," she said.

"From there, it's really grown and kind of taken on its own life and become really inspiring."

Teachers, classmates, local companies and community members have all donated their time, expertise and resources toward the project.

Heather Chisholm says many people have helped make her dream of a shipping container school a reality. (CBC)

The plan is to convert and customize either two 40-foot containers or three 20-foot containers into a pre-school for up to 40 children in the Kalinago Territory, which is the home to the last of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.

"The shipping containers, originally built to withstand 100 mile an hour winds and 50-foot waves, are tough [and] durable making them an ideal shell for a classroom in tropical Dominica," Round Square said of Heather's plan.

It is also an eco-friendly solution, repurposing about 3,500 kilograms of steel per container, Round Square noted.

"The customised shipping containers will offer a safe and much needed learning space for children affected by the storm."

Heather prefers the larger option — two 40-foot containers — but says it might require more assembly upon arrival and she doesn't want to burden the community of about 2,500 people, or the local groups backing the project which are the Waitukubili Kairifuna Development Agency (WAIKADA) and Aywasi Kalinago Retreat.

Finalizing design

Comeau McKenzie Architecture, Fundy Engineering and First Choice Ventilation are helping to finalize the best design and materials.

"We want to make it a really great place for kids to learn," a hands-on space where the children, aged three and four, can move around and work together, said Heather.

"The goal is to have it kind of in a way that it can be almost rolled out," with any necessary equipment packed inside.

The structure, which will be bolted to a concrete slab on a two-acre plot, will also serve other functions, such as a community centre and training facility for teachers, "so it's going to be a really adaptable space," she said.

Heather envisions having a reception area, a small kitchenette, outside washrooms and a shower hose.

"We're also hoping — this is kind of a big one — but we want to make it really eco-friendly and kind of off the grid," using either solar or wind energy so it can be self-reliant.

Still needs $13K

About $7,000 of the $20,000 funding-raising goal has been achieved through a variety of events, including a Grade 10 Farmers' Market, candy grams for Valentine's Day and a broadway music show called Broadway Revue, scheduled for May 27, at 7 p.m. at the RNS theatre.

Twenty-four of Heather's classmates have formed five committees, dealing with architecture, engineering, school stations, fundraising and social media. (Submitted)

Heather and her team are also seeking donated furnishings, such as tables, chairs and rugs, equipment, such as laptops and printers, and school supplies, such as books and pencils.

She initially hoped to have the school up and running by this fall, but is now aiming to ship the containers by April 2019, giving the teachers plenty of time to set up and settle in by September 2019.

Reflecting on the past year, Heather said "the whole process has been pretty incredible.

"It started off as just an idea and something I kind of thought, 'Oh you know, that would be cool.'  But so many people have stepped up and the school has been really supportive.

"It's easy to dream and it's easy to think about all the things that you could do, but … to see that it can actually take form is pretty inspiring."

With files from Rachel Cave