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Extra Awesome Dalhousie hoping to make an impact in its first year

Inside the new Dal program striving to build communities for Halifax youth and students

Extra Awesome Dalhousie opened the Studley Gym doors for their inaugural session on Sunday, Jan. 21 to a group of smiling youth. 

Started at Queen’s University in Kingston Ont., Extra Awesome is a unique weekly program that brings youth with Down syndrome, from ages five to 20, and their siblings together to enjoy activities and build a community with university student volunteers. 

The program was brought to Dalhousie University by Alec Belanger, a member of the men’s hockey team, and now co-chair of Extra Awesome Dalhousie. The first-year student participated in the original Extra Awesome program at Queen’s University during his time with the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). 

Belanger’s time with the program left a big impact on him.

“I would go to the sessions, and every time I would leave with a smile on my face,” he said.

Belanger praised the volunteers who came out to the volunteer orientation a week before the first actual event. 

Some of these volunteers include Dalhousie students Anna Parsons, Sydni Bird, Emma Ward, Emily Payne, Gabby Noordijk and Mattie Base, who make up the team that coordinates the program. The group is also joined by Madison Cooper, a Queen’s University student and the program’s other co-chair.

“Now that I’ve got it up and running here, the volunteers have kind of taken over things,” Belanger said. “They’re so great and so smart.”

When Belanger first got involved with the program, he was in his fourth of five years in the OHL, splitting time between the Ottawa 67’s and Kingston. Now, he is tearing up the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference, placing third in the league with 15 goals in 21 games, despite being a rookie.

“I’ve been a hockey player my whole life, but at the end of the day I cherish this more,” said Belanger. “My Sundays are going to be more important to me than my games on Saturday. I live my week around this.”

On top of just helping the community, Belanger hopes to create volunteer work for students closer to Dalhousie. He pointed out that medical students are taking five to six classes and then having to travel to Dartmouth or Bedford for this work when they can create a program closer to home. 

Many of the volunteers for Extra Awesome are student-athletes, but there are also individuals from the rest of the student body. This reflects another aspect that Belanger wants the program to assist with, collaboration between the student body and the athletes.

“That’s the divide on campus,” Belanger said. “You see the Tigers backpack, we’re not about that here. On Sunday, nobody’s wearing their backpacks, there’s no Tigers. We want to stop that divide. We’re all students here, and we’re all great people, we should be leaders in the community.”

Emma Ward, the parent coordinator for the program and a member of the women’s basketball team, is looking forward to the program but is adamant that she doesn’t want Extra Awesome to replace or take away from other Dalhousie support programs.

“If a child who goes to other programs that are similar to this gets to go to another one that they really enjoy, then that’s awesome,” Ward said. “If we reach a child who does not go to other programs and needs it, but hasn’t been made aware of the other ones, then even better.”

Ward has also volunteered for other programs in the past outside of school and like Belanger alluded to, said Extra Awesome brings her back to the university.

“[Extra Awesome]’s something that is definitely super important to me,” she said.

Ward also praised the volunteers who came out to the volunteer orientation, saying that all the volunteers are “super fun and super goofy,” but that she expects the program won’t run like clockwork right from the start. 

“I think that’s also part of the fun,” Ward said. “Obviously, we’ve made it clear that we’re just getting things started. We’re just going to see how things go, and just have fun with everybody.”

Ward set the goal to plan the program based on the needs of the children and the things they enjoy. On top of this, the integration of siblings in the program was something that stood out to the third-year therapeutic recreation major.

“The idea [is] that they can come and play together and have fun at a program that is inclusive to both of them,” Ward said. “It’s not in their household, it’s not just because they’re siblings. That’s something very neat.”

More information about Extra Awesome Dalhousie can be found on their Instagram page, @xtraawesomedalhousie, and their Facebook page, with the name “Extra Awesome – Dalhousie University.”

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