Difference Makers are people just like you - everyday Canadians doing amazing things. Explore the stories of past Difference Maker Award recipients below. Every one of these individuals are making their schools and communities more inclusive and accessible for people of all abilities.
In June 2023, we announced our recipients for the 2022/2023 School Year! Read the announcement on our blog.
A youth leader and coach, Archie Allison has been dedicated to accessibility advocacy and inclusion for nearly 40 years. He is the Director, Access and Awareness, at Variety Village / Variety – the Children’s Charity (Ontario) – a charitable organization that focuses on providing inclusive and accessible programs for children with disabilities.
Spending the majority of his life in Vancouver, Spencer van Vloten has volunteered as a youth leader with organizations such as the Easter Seals BC, community organizations for youth new comers to Canada, and currently chairs a committee for Community Living BC – an organization that supports adults with developmental disabilities.
As a sports lover and wheelchair user, wheelchair basketball has been an important part of Alawiye’s life since he was six years old. However, when he began elementary school, he realized wheelchair basketball was not offered through the school’s current sports programming. Seeing the need for greater accessibility, Alawiye took the initiative of introducing the sport to his school, creating a new level of inclusion for staff and students.
Regush is the student support services teacher at Constable Robin Cameron Education Complex, in Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation. Regush works to help students succeed through increased accessibility and support, and empowers her colleagues to find new solutions that best support each student.
Born and raised in the greater Vancouver, BC area, Diaz is a student who has dedicated over four years to improving accessibility and inclusion in the built environment, with a focus on accessible washrooms.
“I always noticed there were older kids that would help the younger kids at school. And I looked up to that,” said Jada. “I saw they’d do things like push little kids on the swing and doing other things that helped them feel included. So, I wanted to do the same.”
Nine-year-old Emerson is in Grade 4 and was born with cerebral palsy. As a wheelchair user, he has been frustrated with the lack of accessibility at his school. In his journey advocating for himself and others with disabilities, he was able to convince his school district to build an accessible path to the sports field at his school.
Christi Budd was five years old when she learned about positive values. That’s the age when she began practicing Chito-Ryu karate, a martial art where students are taught to reach their goals through “peace, perseverance, and hard work.”
“To me, being a Difference Maker is to expand Treat Accessibly so more people notice and do something about accessibility,” Siena said. “Hopefully, we have a bigger voice so that more homes are accessible not just Halloween but every day.
Jarrett has gone above and beyond his role as head coach. He’s created training groups for events such as the Manitoba Marathon, and with the recognition of changing the accessible sport landscape, Jarrett brought together organizations and former Paralympians to create a celebration of accessible sport in the province.
For Alexis, being a Difference Maker has meant initiating positive change in the world. To be recognized by Rick, whom she met when she was 16 years old at the RHF Youth Leadership Summit in Ottawa in 2017, meant the world to her, she said.
Educational Support teacher Trudy McMullin was encouraged to receive a huge response for last year’s Best Buddies Program, which aims to create friendships between people with and without intellectual or developmental disabilities, many of whom may have physical disabilities as well.
One area Tony has made a sizable impact in educating students about accessibility and inclusion is Indigenous issues. When a First Nations colleague, Keith Bomberry, extended the first of several invitations for Tony to join his class on field trips to places such as the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, what he experienced there had a profound impact on him.
When Sofeya Devji, a teacher of blind and visually impaired students at the school, invited Alexis to help shape the Project Adventure program for out-of-classroom learning experiences for students with visual impairments, Alexis agreed — but only if the program could be open to all students with disabilities.
“I chose to nominate Paige as a Difference Maker of the Year not only because of the effect she’s having on her own students, but on students throughout her entire school,” says nominator and Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassador Kuen Tang.
As someone who was born with cerebral palsy and a cognitive disability, Jordan has faced many barriers, but he tends to turn them into opportunities to create more inclusive communities. From a YouTube channel to volunteer work, Jordan's love of sports and his positive outlook have touched his classmates and inspired them to also make a difference.
“Shatanand has a strong sense of social justice and the importance of equity, and a high level of respect for the environment and humanity,” says Natalie Fraser, a child and youth worker (CYW) at Pelmo.
Grade 6 teacher Chris Mieske saw an opportunity to teach his class at Trafalgar Middle School in Nelson, B.C. about how prioritizing inclusion and accessibility could expand their horizons.
Wyeth is a Grade 9 student at Edwin Parr Composite School in Athabasca, Alberta. As far back as she can remember, Wyeth Tan has always wanted everyone around her to feel like they fit in. “Everyone deserves to feel a sense of belonging,” she says.
Educator Aselin Ettinger’s passion for inclusive education started to develop while she was a student at St. Francis Xavier University. She participated in a program called Motor Activities With X, where she worked with local elementary students with disabilities to learn about their needs and help them participate in physical activity in innovative ways.
Discovering her passion for raising awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) helped Milee Millea from Rexton Elementary School in Rexton, New Brunswick overcome extreme shyness.
At just six years old, Brody Moore has demonstrated a capacity for inclusion beyond his years. Attending a wheelchair basketball game as a toddler, and seeing players zoom and spin on the court, sparked a love for the game in Brody that has developed into a full-blown passion.
“Leah Fumerton is the kind of teacher who makes a positive and lasting impact on her students and the teachers she works with. The concepts of growth mindset, resilience, and appreciating differences are part of her core values.”
Jas has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. Inspired by everything fellow wheelchair user Rick Hansen has done for accessibility awareness, Jas took initiative on his own awareness project to share with his school.
“Our entire staff would agree that the world would be a better place if we could add in a few more ‘Abbies’,” says Lindsey Bowkowy, a teacher from Brunskill Elementary, where Abbie Shynkaruk goes to school in Saskatoon.
Tyler was nominated for his efforts in organizing an “Inclusivity Week” at Munroe Junior High School in Winnipeg, but he’s quick to acknowledge that his colleague Desiree Penner deserves the award just as much as he does for co-organizing the activities.
For Sébastien Whissell, being a Difference Maker means being involved in his community to better the lives of others—without counting the hours or expecting anything in return. He also hopes that it means others will learn from his example and be inspired to make a difference. When it comes to difference making, the soon-to-be 11th grader is definitely a leader.
Renuka Senaratne was surprised to hear she’d won a Difference Maker Educator of the Year award from the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program (RHFSP). With all of the work she put towards inclusivity at Surrey’s Janice Churchill Elementary, the rest of her colleagues probably wouldn’t be.
For over 35 years, Schmidt has cared deeply for the community at Pembina Trails. She’s worked as a classroom teacher, a resource teacher, reading recovery teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. She is passionate about safe, caring, and inclusive schools.
Ava Koldenhof is making beaded angels to make a difference through local and international charities. Ava is the recipient of the Rick Hansen School Program Difference Maker Certificate of Excellence for her philanthropic efforts to make the world a better place.
A Rick Hansen-named school in Aurora strives to live up to its namesake every day. Two of its teachers are being recognized as Difference Makers of the Year for leading a Wellness Day that promotes well-being and inclusion.
Renai Moleman believes everyone has the ability to make a difference in their community and world. At Greater Gatineau Elementary in Gatineau, QC, she’s both a kindergarten teacher and member of an accessibility team implementing modifications to the built environment.
Carolyn West, a resource teacher at Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba, believes it’s educators’ responsibility to mold their school into a community where all students can experience life to the fullest.