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School stages Olympic-sized effort to reach goals

Adults squeezed middle-aged bodies into kid-sized chairs around low tables in the school library.

The Pender Islands School parent advisory committee meeting worked through a typical agenda. Funding? Check. Hot lunch program? Check. Playgrounds? Check.

Other business?

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Jane Gregory remembers eight parents being at the meeting. She was one of the new ones, as her eldest daughter had just entered kindergarten. She felt a bit of trepidation about speaking up.

"I have this idea," she said.

The words came in a flood.

"What a chance to inspire the kids. Work hard and you can achieve your goals. Dream big."

If we start now, she told them six years ago, we can raise enough money to send every school-aged student on North and South Pender Islands to the Olympics.

Her brainstorm was greeted by silence and arched eyebrows. At first.

No one else had much thought of the upcoming Winter Games, whose awarding to Vancouver had only just been announced.

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The verdict: Good idea. Hadn't even thought about the Olympics. Let's go for it.

The planning soon began in earnest.

Today, Ms. Gregory, a single mother with two school-aged children and a home-based business, said the idea just popped into her head all those months ago.

"How often does an Olympics happen in your own backyard?" she said.

She thought the islands' schoolchildren would learn about the world and about sports, about different peoples and strange languages, by attending an Olympic competition.

She is also a fan of the athletes, who train diligently and make great sacrifices in trying to achieve their dream.

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"I think Olympians make great mentors for kids," she said.

Ms. Gregory's own exposure to the Olympics was limited to watching on television every few years. She recalls the name Mark Spitz from the 1972 Summer Games. Born in Amersham, a market town in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, she had a peripatetic childhood, as her father, a salesman of office equipment, transferred back and forth between England and Canada.

These days, she sells goat's milk soaps and jellies made from herbs she grows in her garden - dill, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary. You can find her at the Saturday market, but if you want one of her famous sticky buns you'd better get there early.

The first big fundraiser involved an car rally styled on the television show The Amazing Race . Clues were hidden in a treasure chest on a beach, as well as on Ms. Gregory's mother's boat. Contestants even had to hula hoop atop Mount Norman. The local Legion lent their pig-roasting equipment. London Drugs donated a $3,500 entertainment centre as a prize (even though it does not have an outlet on the islands), while Poets Cove Resort on the south island kicked in with a free weekend with dinner.

The parent volunteers organized raffles, art auctions, and a barbecue cook-off (a team of teachers prepared vegetarian delicacies). Prizes ranged from a bushel of local apples to an autographed Trevor Linden hockey sweater to the chance to be a character in a crime novel by William Deverell.

A pie-eating contest left 30 children looking like extras in a Tide commercial.

Wheelchair basketball player Jennifer Krempien, which, of course, rhymes with champion, judged the cook-off. She also brought her Paralympic gold and silver medals, which thrilled the students.

In the end, the parents raised about $20,000.

They now had enough money, only to learn Olympics tickets were to be allocated by lottery, a system in which only individuals, not groups, could apply.

So, the parents organized a block to enter.

By avoiding the most-in-demand events, they hit the jackpot.

They got 24 tickets to a men's hockey game between Switzerland and the United States.

They got 17 tickets to a women's hockey game between Sweden and Canada.

They got 48 tickets to women's curling.

They got 96 tickets to sledge hockey.

They got eight standing-room tickets to the men's snowboarding finals at Cypress Mountain.

About 160 students - the enrolment at the Pender Islands Schools, the French immersion students who take a daily water taxi to Salt Spring Island, and home-schooled pupils - were given a ducat. The remainder went to parent chaperones.

Because accommodation was too expensive, it was agreed to turn each visit into a day trip. That meant rising at dawn to catch the 7:05 ferry to Mayne Island to Galiano Island to Tsawwassen. The students packed a picnic lunch. (Each student also brought a sleeping bag, as the emergency plan was to stay at a church in Delta if they missed the last ferry home.) They were met on the mainland by the school bus, which then parked at the local school ground closest to the competition.

The only snag - the cancellation of the snowboarding tickets. Those student spent the day downtown enjoying the Olympic atmosphere.

Ms. Gregory and her eldest daughter Samantha, 12, a Grade 6 student, who painted a red maple leaf on her right cheek, attended the women's hockey match. Her youngest, Melanie, 10, a Grade 5 student, cheered the Canadians at curling.

Just about every school-aged student on Pender shared the experience of attending the Olympics.

"They got a memorable experience they'll take with them for the rest of their lives," she said.

On the way back from the final event, Ms. Gregory told a teacher she had another project in mind.

The 2012 Summer Games. In London. They'd better get to work. Only two years left to do the fundraising.

At first, the teacher thought she might be serious.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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