Speak Up Conference helps students get their voices heard


The buzz of idle chatter among more than 700 adolescents filled the gymnasium at Brampton’s Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School as the young crowd waited for start of the Speak Up Student Conference, organized to inspire students to use their voices to make a difference in local communities and around the world.

About 750 Grade 7 students from 19 schools at northeast Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board schools attended the January 28 event designed to help youth find issues they are passionate about and spur them to action on those issues.

The event opened with lyrical inspiration from country singer/songwriter Sacha, who was followed by presentations by ACCESS founder Daniel Francavilla, school board student trustees Izabella Balcerak and Meghana Benoy and members of Cardinal Ambrozic’s student-led anti-bullying and leadership group.

Speak_Up_Students3bAfter the presentations, students moved into workshops to discuss ideas on local and global issues, education and learning, student well-being and Catholic education.

“I think it’s important to be heard,” said Rheana Isaac, a Grade 8 student at St Agnes Catholic School, who was helping present the conference. When youth speak up they can help themselves and others, insisted 13-year-old schoolmate Therese Perucho.

Speakers and presenters were in chorus in telling students they have a powerful role to play in their communities.

“There’s no better time to speak up than now”

Francavilla, 24, told the elementary school students.

A graduate of St. Marguerite d’Youville Secondary School, Francavilla recounted how he started a charity, now supporting projects locally and abroad, when he was in Grade 10.

He signed up for a school trip to the Dominican Republic. What he saw opened his eyes to the reality that most of the world lives in poverty.

“It was very different than seeing it on TV,” Francavilla said.

Speak_Up_Students3cHe recalled returning home and sharing his experience with the congregation at his church and launching a fundraiser to buy school uniforms for children in the Dominican Republic. He collected over $8,000 that weekend and essentially started ACCESS.

The youth-led non-profit, originally founded to help students in developing countries access education, has evolved to also empower youth who want to make positive social change.

“If you come together as a group and you focus on an issue, you can come up with a solution right on the spot,” he said, and suggested change doesn’t always have to take years.

Conference activities culminated with a “call to action” by St. Patrick’s parish pastor Father Vito Marziliano.

Originally published by Roger Belgrave in The Brampton Guardian on January 25, 2015. Photos by Rob Beintema.