Byrne Creek's Felix Chong (left) and Alex Flores (right) help steady videographer Sampson Fang as the trio captures images of multi-sport athlete Jas Sidhu for its Athlete of the Month feature. (Photo property Byrne Creek athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)
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At Burnaby’s Byrne Creek, Athletic Council class gives students an empowered ‘voice of community’ in a time of disconnect!

BURNABY — This past September, on what was the first day of a freshly-minted class in the curriculum at Byrne Creek Community School, the teacher posed a defining question to his students.

“I had the kids write down what they thought the athletic climate was at Byrne Creek, and how they would perceive us if they were not (students) at the school,” said Moreno Stefanon. “We are very much in our infancy in terms of re-establishing an athletic culture at our school.”

The class, entitled Athletic Council, has returned as a mainstay at four other Burnaby secondary schools this academic year, yet the backdrop for its introduction at Byrne Creek, in the midst of the global pandemic, has made it a particularly interesting case study.

Why?

In just a handful of weeks, for the first time in the modern history of B.C. high school sports, an entire fall-winter-spring season of competition will have been lost.

Byrne Creek Bulldogs head rugby coach Moreno Stefano has taught an Athletic Council course to students at the Burnaby school this year. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Yet during that time, the students at Byrne Creek who signed up for Athletic Council not only deepened their appreciation for the atmosphere and community created through the simple act of inter-school athletic competition, they planted the figurative seeds needed to re-grow that so-called athletic culture beginning this fall.

As part of a course which has touched on topics like event planning, marketing through branding, managing athletic inventory, and social media, the students at Byrne Creek have built a foundation which they can build upon in a hopeful post-pandemic era, empowered with the kinds of ideas which allow the athletic re-start to more powerfully build ties within not only its campus community, but the throughout the broader community at-large.

It’s a movement already underway in School District 41.

Burnaby North, Burnaby South, Burnaby Central and Burnaby Mountain also offer the course within its curriculum.

And once the spirit spreads, as Stefanon himself has witnessed, it picks up others along the journey.

“They became the critical mass… the momentum that we needed to carry this forward,” said Stefanon of the Athletic Council students. “The first group that finally takes a real interest in it, carries it forward and people are happy to jump on the bus once it’s moving. If you can get a few kids to drive that bus, everyone wants to jump aboard and have a good time.”

Stefanon, who launched a burgeoning rugby program at Byrne Creek upon his arrival three years ago, and is set to become the school’s new athletic director in September, has himself reached out into the community to give his students a clearer picture of just how much positive potential the council could have in building athletic culture at the school.

As Alex Flores captures the sound, Sampson Fang films video segment with Byrne Creek volleyball-soccer-netball standout Jas Sidhu. (Photo property Byrne Creek athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

As an example, Simon Fraser University’s associate director of marketing and communications Steve Frost spoke to the class on subjects like branding, drawing on a lifetime spent working with both major professional sports teams and globally-recognized corporations.

“Steve and I were able to have a chat around what we are doing here with athletic council and he has such a massive background working with both the Canucks and Grizzlies, and with big-business companies like EA Sports and McDonalds,” said Stefanon. “He’s worked in professional sports and now, working at SFU, he has more of the scholastic feel, too. He did a Zoom presentation with our kids that talked about what it means to brand, and how we could build connections in the community that would be mutually beneficial to schools and businesses.”

All of that helped brainstorm initiatives around the school, including its recently-launched Athlete of the Month project designed to celebrate Grade 12 student-athletes who best define the Bulldogs’ persona through their academic, athletic and overall community involvement.

The first two of three planned honourees before summer break where Alex Flores (basketball and rugby) in April, and Jas Sidhu (basketball, soccer, netball) in May.

“The idea was to highlight the qualities of individuals we want to see in our programs,” said Stefanon. “They are multi-sport, they do well in the classroom, they have the qualities of a good teammate and they want to contribute to their school community. We want other kids to aspire to be like them in the Byrne Creek Bulldogs program.”

It’s been all about finding a silver lining during the toughest of times, providing a vehicle to help empower students to treasure the spirit and resiliency of their respective campuses, and to pay that intangible force forward to the next class of students. 

“Another project we’re working on is a promotional video, the kind you would see a university or professional team do, so we can showcase our athletic culture to the kids coming up from elementary school,” Stefanon said. “It’s the pipeline, right? You have kids for five years (in high school) but if you focus on just one class or one group, then you are going to get a gap of air in the pipe. This is how we can sustain the culture… by insuring the kids know what is here for them, and that they can get excited about it.”

And Stefanon seems just as proud to report that what is transpiring during the pandemic at Byrne Creek is not happening in a vacuum as it relates to so many other campuses within the Burnaby School District, and at so many other schools around B.C.

“This isn’t happening out of the blue,” says Stefanon, who credits the belief and support of Byrne’s principal Effie Aadland and others, like former Byrne VP and current Dist. 41 principal of Safe and Caring Schools Nick Christofides, and Byrne Creek’s community school coordinator and senior boys basketball coach Bal Dhillon, for making the course a reality at the school.

“I’ve always liked to look at what others are doing, and when you are coordinating leagues you get to know everyone at the other schools,” Stefanon added of the team of like-minded individuals in the Burnaby School District who have unwittingly become an important foundation for the benefits of celebrating athletic culture.

“You start to get ideas, and I can just look down the street and see what (Robbie) Puni is doing at Burnaby South,” Stefanon continues of the Rebels’ longtime AD. “And Jennifer Oatway (Burnaby-New Westminster Athletic Association president), who is another phenomenal AD in our district. She has something at Burnaby North called the Viking Athletic Council.”

The circle is tight.

Oatway and current Burnaby South vice-principal Curtis Hodgson are former Byrne Creek co-athletic directors.

Fingers are crossed across the province for a safe return to play in the fall, and if that happens, as most expect it will, an appreciative group of students and student-athletes dedicated to building the experience, will be able to celebrate together.

It’s been a will-testing 2020-21 season at high schools across the province, yet there is no question that important work, like that which transpired at Byrne Creek this school year, will make the re-start a time of intense appreciation for all concerned.

Students can take a lot of different classes in B.C. high schools, yet it’s hard to find another which offered the promise of such connection to their respective schools in a time of extreme disconnect.

Byrne Creek senior boys basketball coach Dhillon, a huge supporter of all the good the Athletic Council class did in 2020-21, put it best.

“It was absolutely self-empowering,” he said. “The kids bring a skill set, especially in the digital online world, that a lot of adults, including myself, just don’t have.

“But the other piece,” Dhillon added, “is that it didn’t matter what the medium was, whether it was on-line or not. The most important thing was that all of this gave the students a voice, and that voice must always be valued and given platforms to be amplified.”

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at howardtsumura@gmail.com.

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