Grass-root charity helping underprivileged students makes jump from Ottawa to Toronto, showing even small donations can change someone’s life
By Jeff Todd
For years, Fred Cass and his wife Tracy knew they wanted to help make a difference in the lives of underprivileged high school students.
But like so many people, Cass, an energy lawyer with Aird Berlis in Toronto, struggled with how to effectively tackle such an overwhelming problem. How can you get money into the pockets of students that really need it? In the end, the Cass family mothballed the idea — that is, until 2019, when they saw an article in the paper about a program known as Help Our Students.
Cass was blown away as he read about Richard Lussier, who founded a program in Ottawa that worked with dozens of high schools and helped hundreds of underprivileged students, all by giving them $100 a month — no strings attached.
Here was someone who had broken the code.
“For Richard, there is something very special about it,” Cass explains, who immediately wrote Lussier a letter and then made the trip to Ottawa with his wife to meet him in person.
“It is almost spiritual to him, and that kind of spirit shines through when you talk to him. Maybe spiritual isn’t the best word, but I don’t have a better one. He just has this special thing inside him that drives him to be.”
The concept is simple, yet effective — provide a struggling student with $100 per month, for an entire year, so he or she can graduate high school. The monthly stipend increased to $150 per month last September, to account for the rising cost of living.
Today, quietly and consistently, Help Our Students has assisted more than 800 teenagers in the Ottawa area, and counting. More than 200 students are enrolled in the program this year alone, and in December 2022, this registered charity will surpass $1 million in disbursements to some of the most vulnerable youth in our city.
Lussier has the letters to prove it.
As part of your enrollment in the program, he required every student to pen a letter on how the money has changed his or her life.
“Your money helped me put clean clothes on my body, helped me put food on the table,” one student wrote. “You made it easier for me to come to school and actually get work done. Before all the help, I was stressed and insecure about never having anything. I was able to help my mom, friends and some family over time. I really wish there was a way I could repay you. I don’t know where I would be without you.”
Even today, Lussier says the letters bring him to tears.
“For example, one student is able to go to school, and work fewer hours at his part-time job, because there is money to help feed his siblings,” he explains. “Another said she was able to buy a dress for the prom when she graduated. It was the first time in her life she felt normal. But really, it is giving these young people hope. It opens up a world to them that they didn’t know could exist.”
By the end of that dinner, Cass was sold. He was immediately ready to dig in and get to work on the Community Support for Students Program (CSSP) — a sister chapter to Help Our Students.
While the chapter launched in January 2020, the pandemic severely hampered their efforts. Nevertheless, the new chapter managed to bring on three schools in the first year and assisted six students in need. In 2021, CSSP grew to include seven schools and 14 students. And now that schools are fully open and most students back in the classroom, CSSP in Toronto will be full steam ahead.
Lussier says it is the simplicity of the program that resonates so well with schools, students, and of course, the donors.
Teachers and staff are asked to nominate students in need and a school committee makes its selections. After that, the program basically runs itself — Lussier then arranges a monthly wire transfer, and students are free to spend the funds as they wish.
According to Lussier, the fact Help Our Students does not micro-manage how the students spend the money is important.
After all, most the students in the program have never had a bank account before. A few of them might spend the money right away, Lussier admitted. Others thoughtfully budget every penny, and even put small amounts aside for future savings.
The point, he explains, is students are given the confidence and agency to take control of their lives. They can achieve successes, or make mistakes, like the rest of us. While the choices students make can vary, the overall results are hard to argue with. According to Lussier, more than 30 percent of the students in last year’s program not only graduated high school, but were accepted into college or university.
Lussier knows the power of a helping hand, no matter how small.
In 1962, at the age 16, Lussier called his father from a pay phone on Dorval, Quebec. He was struggling badly, both academically and financially, and told his dad he’d be dropping out of school.
Not so fast, his father said — he drove from Cornwall to Montreal that day, and handed him $100. Now go back to school, he told his son.
The family didn’t exactly have $100 to spare. Growing up, Lussier remembers that for every paycheck that came in, cash was dutifully stuffed into envelopes marked as rent, food and other basic expenses, just to ensure there was enough left over the end of the month.
Lussier did stay in school. He eventually transferred to the Royal Military College in Kingston and graduated with a Commerce degree. And after a few twists and turns, he eventually got a finance job at a now closed military hospital in Canada, before landing a position at the National Arts Centre in accounts payable. Lussier would rise to the position of Managing Director, before retiring at the age of 50 with a pension.
But he never forgot where he came from.
Lussier knew he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others — he just didn’t know how to do it. And then the light bulb finally went off. He remembered that $100 from his father, which changed the trajectory of his life.
And he has dedicated his life to Help Our Students ever since.
Along the way, Help Our Students has been blessed by an impressive and growing group of supporters and board directors, including David H. Hill, senior partner at Perley-Roberson, Hill & McDougall LLP, Carman Joynt, retired partner with Deloitte & Touche and past Chair of the Board at the Royal Canadian Mint, Dr. Chris Carruthers, former Chief of Staff at Ottawa Hospital, Mohamed Sheibami, Partner at Deloitte Canada, and most recently, Peter Nicholson, President of the Foundation WCPD.
“When Richard [Lussier] reached out to me, I had never heard of Help Our Students,” Peter Nicholson says.
“Put simply, I was blown away by both his personal story and the direct impact this charity is making in the lives of students. The impact is A to B — it is efficient and easy to understand. I look forward to raising more awareness for the program.”
While Cass has similar ambitions in Toronto, he also knows Rome isn’t built in a day.
CSSP in Toronto is now bringing on more schools, new volunteers and beginning their own journey towards $1 million distributed to students.
At the end of the day, both chapters are built on the same principles — giving students a chance by placing money in their pockets.
“Having no strings attached doesn’t seem to be an issue with donors. It has really built my faith in the people willing to make donations,” Cass says. “They are willing to trust. All I can do is emphasize what an amazing thing Richard and his wife Linda have accomplished. Just incredible and I wouldn’t have thought it possible. Trying to do it here in Toronto has really reinforced that for me.”
To learn more about the Community Support for Students Program, or to make a donation, visit compassaward.com.
Jeff Todd is Director of Marketing and Communications at The WCPD Foundation. He is also President-Elect and VP of Partnerships for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) in Ottawa, Chairman of the Board for the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) in Eastern Ontario, an advisor to Beneath the Waves and Co-Founder of the Exuma Foundation of Canada.