Baltimore student wins prestigious humanitarian award

By Cecilia Nasmith

When she was just a little girl, Baltimore Public School student Kylie Dennis heard about children in Africa who couldn't go to school – and got right to work on it.


Thus began a life dedicated to children less fortunate than herself. And as she graduates from Cobourg Collegiate Institute and prepares for university, Kylie has just learned that her efforts and example have helped earn her the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award.

Her bright smile, curly hair and bubbly enthusiasm are known to so many in the local community because, year by year, she grew up in the public eye as the key figure behind the annual Taste Of Africa fundraisers she organized in support of the St. Peter's Anglican Church partnership with St. Mark's Church in Malawi.

Kylie learned about this partnership when she was eight years old, and was struck by something that seemed inconceivable to a little girl who loved school – part of the work of St. Mark's, which the Cobourg church was supporting, was ensuring the children of the community could attend school. In Malawi, she learned, this is not something free that families can take for granted – it involves school fees that families sometimes cannot afford.

It struck at her heart that perhaps some children could not go to school, so she organized the first Taste Of Africa fundraiser, an annual event she would put on throughout her years at Baltimore Public School and later at Dale Road Senior Public School. She estimates that would be half a dozen fundraisers in all, bringing in something like $2,500 each year.

The program called for a dinner of African foods, which church volunteers (and her parents Diane and Ed Dennis) prepared for the ticket holders, as well as plenty of spaghetti for those who wanted to support the event but did not feel up to a culinary adventure.

Entertainment was by Kylie and her friends at the Cobourg Dance Alliance. These late-spring events came at the end of their dance season, so they would have some polished routines to perform, sometimes incorporating African traditional elements.

Finally, there would be an array of silent-auction items that Kylie and friends would have secured for the cause. It was a wonderful chance for the community to come together and support Kylie in her mission to ensure as many children in Malawi as possible could attend school.

When Kylie moved on to CCI, she no longer had time for Taste of Africa evenings, but she did have her eyes on another prize – the annual Journey of Hope trips organized by CCI principal Steve Truelove and his colleague Jeff Kawzenuk to Tanzania to work at a school in Kilema.

These trips have gone on for at least a decade, she said, and she was thrilled at the opportunity to accompany one in Grade 10, the chance to teach English, math and phys ed, to participate in work parties to repaint some of the classrooms and to assist with the fundraising for upkeep and improvements (such as new latrines).

“It was like a dream come true, literally, seeing all the kids in school. I definitely cried the first time I saw them out of happiness, but also the realization that this is exactly what I want to do,” Kylie recalled.

“I realized how much I love it, and that love for Africa is true.

“You say you know you love things, but once you do it and pursue it, it's a whole different thing.”

CCI lead guidance teacher Erin MacKenzie, who has known Kylie since she and her daughter were in the same dance class as little girls, was so proud to hear news of the award - a prestigious and highly competitive honour, with only a limited number of young recipients chosen across the nation each year.

It recognizes dedication to the humanitarian ideals of Terry Fox, McKenzie said, and no one could deny that Kylie is all about giving back.

MacKenzie also noted that it honours those who have displayed courage in overcoming obstacles and persisted in the pursuit of excellence.

Just as Terry Fox fought cancer to mount a Marathon of Hope to raise funds for cancer research, Kylie faced her own challenges when – just weeks after she returned from Africa – she suffered a catastrophic March Break skiing accident. Friends and family members feared for her life and, when it became clear she would survive, worried about how long her road to recovery would be.

When Kylie was well enough to return to school, McKenzie reported, she still had that sunny smile in spite of whatever physical and emotional struggles she was going through. CCI staff who had feared she would need an extra year to get through high school are so proud to see she is graduating with her peers with a stellar academic record and even a complete return to the dancing she loves.

“Kylie has an incredible story of courage, resilience and compassion, along with a long history of philanthropic work, and she is very deserving of this recognition,” McKenzie declared.

The application process for this award, which includes a very welcome scholarship component, includes an essay and requires three references. Kylie got an e-mail that she had been chosen for an interview (which she did by Skype from Quebec), and just last week got word that she had been chosen.

As she celebrates with her parents and her sister Kaylin, she is looking forward to getting started on the concurrent-education program at Brock University with the aim of becoming an elementary-school teacher. She encountered Brock at the University Fair, liked what she heard (including the news that they have a great dance program), was glad that it is not located too far from home, and was sold when she took the campus tour.

And when school is done, she added, “I want to travel to Third World countries and teach. I'm not sure exactly where, but I know at some point I'm going to end up in Africa.”

She would especially like to look in on St. Mark's in Malawi. The children she helped to educate would be grown by now, she expects, but there are apparently pictures of her floating around the community. A volunteer from St. Peter's took some over to Malawi with him to illustrate how church members were supporting them, and the pictures promptly disappeared.

“To see what the church has been able to do will be amazing,” she said.