A Pay-it-Forward Project Inclusive of All

by Jody Anne McDonald

“Words of gratitude and thanksgiving become contagious.”

I am an ordinary person with an ordinary heart. However, I have been called to do extra ordinary work—I teach! Through kind actions, words of praise, a smile, compassion or care, teachers transform others. Students are continuously nudged to engage in curriculum as well as nurtured to develop strong social talk and social skills. By giving my gift of time and talent, who I am makes a huge difference to both my home family and my school family. This is a story about an affirmation project called Who I AM and the journey of healing it created.


I believe in the beauty of gratitude and thanksgiving. When these qualities are presented to our youth as a positive beacon, gratitude can become a contagious action that ripples outward. Thanksgiving does not recognize age nor limit itself to race, gender or religion. Both gratitude and thanksgiving are the universal language that crosses borders, breaks down barriers of hatred and mends crippled relationships. The gift of our words has the ability to enlighten and empower—from the emotionally weak to the physically strong, our words affect the Who I AM within each of us.

The meaning to the “Who I AM” title is personal. I AM important because of how I view myself and others view me. The I AM within us includes the blending of others’ molding and shaping our character. Who I AM makes a difference to self and others by building on character education, self-confidence and selfworth. Combining the voice of our youth with the power of their word choice, the conception of Who I AM was formed. As a teacher experienced in both the secondary and elementary arena of education, I recognize the weaving of the same golden thread—the desire to express unconditional love to others through social justice actions, global awareness, social inclusivity, community support while being inclusive and supporting Differentiated Instruction techniques. The Who I AM project complements these initiatives and highlights their value while bringing a new message to the forefront—the message of “thanks for helping me be who I am.” The value of this message is instrumental in continuing to reach into deeper pockets of social justice actions, global awareness, social inclusivity and community support.


A teacher’s modeling of the Who I AM formula was the secret to connecting with colleagues when this project was launched. Each teacher who participated in this endeavour first received the gift of words from Bishop Smith Catholic high school principal, Mr. Clint Young, Angela Watson OCT and me. This action was viewed as an authentic footprint to the merit of the project. In addition, teachers were invited to receive a Who I AM package consisting of enough blue ribbons for each of their students and packs of two gold ribbons that their students would use to pay it forward. The outreach was a staggering 4,000 individuals who received either a blue or gold ribbon along with words of gratitude. Focused within the framework of Renfrew County Catholic District School Board, the Who I AM project was inclusive of seven schools and students from JK through to grade 12. The timing was coordinated to have displays of gratitude coexist with our October Thanksgiving—Thanksgiving within a Thanksgiving!

Rooted in the pay-it-forward concept, teachers presented each of their classroom students with a blue ribbon and the “gift of words” that said “Who you are makes a difference to us because…” Each student was then given two gold ribbons and the instructions to think of two individuals who made a difference in who they were. Thinking outside of the school, students reached out to community in acknowledging that it takes “a village” to help develop the Who I AM within us. Students were hooked on spreading gratitude and requested additional supplies to forward to others.


Through anonymous self-reflections, students reported emotional healing within relationships. Students who commented on seldom, if ever, hearing the words “I love you” from parents, found themselves not only basking in the glory of the three tiny words but wrapped in warm embraces as the ribbon and the “gift of words” were spoken and shared. Elementary students found the Who I AM project energizing and enriching. They have few barriers that limit them in honest relationships and were eager to share the ribbons with coaches, grandparents and local ministers.

Students from the secondary panel reported that the project was more of a challenge than they had expected. Busy lives on the part of both students and parents found little time for connectedness in presenting the ribbon. Comments included, “I tried to get my parent’s attention but I was told to wait until commercial” or “I really wanted to present the ribbon to my parent but was told to wait until the phone call was over.” However, they enjoyed receiving the recognition from their teachers and were surprised that teachers cared so much about their students to openly share words of affirmation.

The testimony that touched my heart was authored by one of my grade 4 students. Clark is a cool kid. He has curly blond hair, eyes that sparkle and a ready smile for any occasion. As a teacher, I knew he was destined to be an amazing adult and it was a privilege to be a part of his academic journey. Clark had shared with me the cancer battle that his grandmother was re-fighting. I knew Clark had a deep passionate faith and an unconditional love for his mom’s mother. It was difficult not to be touched by the gentle lady’s courage as seen through the innocence of Clark’s eyes.

Presenting a Who I AM ribbon to Clark was not an easy task. With my “gift of words” came the realization that the ripple of love would reach to this grandmother. Clark smiled and graciously accepted his challenge. The next day he asked to speak to me. He shared a problem. The night before had been his father’s birthday and Clark felt the desire to present his dad with a Who I AM ribbon. So he did. He had singing lessons that night and again wanted to present a Who I AM ribbon to his music teacher. So he did. He was without ribbons for his grandmothers. I reassured him this was a good problem and that as a grandmother, I could supply him with additional ribbons in order to express his love to his extended nurturers. Clark lit up like a Christmas tree.

A few weeks later Clark’s grandmother left behind her battle and her pain in order to receive eternal peace. The “gift of words” Clark shared with her were the greatest gift of all. He spoke of her courage and her love when he presented her a satin ribbon. Simple words—“Who you are makes a difference to me because…” but the power of love behind the words brings emotional healing to all. I will never forget Clark nor will Clark ever forget how he changed the world through expressing a “gift of words” to his grandmother.

The Who I AM affirmation project began as a Character Education ripple—a small wave along the surface of Ontario’s educational waters. With the unconditional support of Renfrew County Catholic District School Board, the ripple became a wave and continued to grow into a tsunami of gratitude and thanksgiving that knows no boundaries. Who I am makes a difference to those who know me and who you are makes an enormous difference to others too!



Jody Anne McDonald

Jody Anne McDonald OCT is the TLLP Team Leader 2013-2014, a Religion specialist and Special Education specialist.

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