Gennie McNicol’s experience building schools in Kenya changed her life forever.

The avid volunteer, who is President of Nepean High School’s Kiwanis Key Club, was so taken with the program, she’s changed her career plans. Before heading to the Masai Mara region of Kenya with 26 others this summer, she had a vague idea that she wanted to go into sciences to eventually conduct medical research. But now her path is far more clear. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after high school, but now I do,” the Grade 11 student said. “I either want to work for an organization like Free the Children, or I want to be a nurse who can work in developing countries.”

She said she was quite taken with the “adorable, amazing and enthusiastic” Kenyan school children. “It was really neat to see how excited they were because we’re not used to seeing kids who are excited to go to school.” She was also struck by the lack of health care and by how poor the children were – many didn’t have shoes to wear to school. “It gave me a different outlook,” Gennie said. “I didn’t really know anything about Kenya. It taught me a lot and it changed my life. Now I’m a bit more focused on what’s important to me.” The point of the trip, run by a Toronto based international youth leadership organization called Leaders Today, was to build schools. The group dug three-foot trenches and Gennie has “the blisters to prove it.” Using traditional construction methods, they chiselled stones into bricks and hand-mixed concrete. They helped at every step – they laid stone bricks, assembled roofs, dug foundations, poured floors and built walls. Gennie says volunteering, as she did on the Kenya trip, is important – and it’s “a lot of fun.” Those values are exactly what the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa, which sponsors four Key (Kiwanis Educating Youth) Clubs in the city, wants to see from its future leaders. The Key Clubs at Glebe Collegiate, Lisgar Collegiate, Nepean High School and Sir Robert Borden High School have between 20 and 50 members each. The clubs have one designated teacher advisor and two Kiwanis members who also provide guidance. The idea is to bring the spirit of Kiwanis to young people and to “develop by precept and example, a more intelligent, aggressive and serviceable citizenship.” The idea, said Grant Yusak, chair of the Key Clubs for the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa, is to emphasize the Kiwanis belief that one person can make a difference. He said Key Clubs are just one more thing a student can do extra-curricularly. And what they learn will stay with them forever. “They learn that they can make a difference,” Mr. Yusak said.

As president of her school’s Key Club, Gennie heads up a team of students who regularly volunteer at the Dovercourt Community Centre’s events, such as their fall festival and winter carnival. They also don reindeer ears each Christmas to volunteer at the Parkinson Society’s annual party. Gennie’s trip to Kenya had its roots last year, when she rallied her own Key Club and several other groups at Nepean High School to help raise the $10,000 required to build a school there. She had been inspired by a talk by Craig Kielburger, who co-founded Leaders Today with his brother Marc. Mr. Kielburger spoke at her school about their other organization, Free the Children. Through his talk, she found out the cost of building a school and was inspired to raise it through Key Club. After her hard work on that project, her parents decided to pay for her Leaders Today trip to Kenya as a surprise Christmas present. “It was a life-changing experience,” Gennie says.