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Celebration of Service

Creativity and thinking big leads to big results in Canada

IBM employees think outside the box to help create “Volunteer in a Box”

Upon hearing a depressing statistic, some people shake their heads and turn away. But IBM employees Tyler Sparks-Austin and Judy Wityszyn took a bad ranking and turned it into an IBM Centennial Day of Service extravaganza that gathered together more than 450 IBM volunteers working in 188 classes across Canada to provide 5200 students with a day to have fun learning more about innovation and creativity.

In the Conference Board of Canada’s most recent report card, Canada ranked 14th in innovation among 17 developed nations. Addressing the skill gap in creative problem-solving and innovation has been identified as a top priority by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Leveraging their experience from an IBM Smarter Planet camp in 2010, Tyler and Judy wanted tackle this challenge while creating a program that would have a wider impact.

“Creative problem-solving skills are essential as the foundation for being successful with anything students need to do today and in the future. We need people who challenge the unspoken rules that get in the way, and students need to be creative in order to do it,” Judy says.

“To steal Thomas Watson Sr.’s words, ‘All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think,’” adds Tyler.

With that lofty goal in mind, the two set out to create an IBM day of service that would impact students across the expanded Greater Toronto Area, the largest metropolitan area in Canada.

Working in partnership with Destination ImagiNation, Inc. (DI), a nonprofit organization that specializes in creative, innovative problem-solving activities designed specifically for students, the pair quickly realized they needed a way to make a curriculum that was built for volunteers who had limited time. Thus, ‘Volunteer-in-a-Box’ was born.

“We wanted to make this volunteer activity attractive and accessible for a large number of people. It had to be kept simple, and work within the time requirements of the IBM Centennial day of service,” says Judy.

With help from DI, a core IBM leadership team created a program that included all the activities for the kids, plus pre-event training for volunteers with conference calls and lunch-and-learns in several IBM locations. Detailed instructions for the activities and all the necessary materials (thousands of paper clips, rubber bands, labels, and hundreds of pieces of string, construction paper, and tape) were packaged in portable IBM bags and made available for pick-up or shipping before the event day.

On June 15, 2011, all of that creativity, planning, organizing and hope went into effect. Pairs of volunteers went into Grade 6 classrooms across the Greater Toronto Area for a day of activities specifically designed to help young minds take the road less traveled.

The enormous team of IBM volunteers was delighted.

“The experience was amazing,” says Judy. “We got to influence how kids think, and we got to talk with them about how IBM is not just about computers, but about making the world better.”

“As a whole, every (school) who participated was tickled at the success. They had all sorts of positive things to say, and the gratitude of the teachers and students was overwhelming,” says Tyler.

After the event, IBM volunteers reported they felt valued, and that they contributed to a greater good, in addition to helping students learn about creativity and gain a sense that everyone is a valuable team member.

The willingness of over 450 IBM volunteers to tackle such a large initiative with so many unknowns astonished both Tyler and Judy.

“Everyone was amazing,” says Judy. “People teamed with people they’d never met, they were flexible and traveled to unknown corners of the area to ensure the greatest coverage for the largest number of children. They dug in, figured it out, and I am so impressed that our IBMers understood the day was about the students, and wanted to make it the best it could be for them.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.