Grace Boothman knows what it’s like being a high school student in an unfamiliar foreign school.
It was during a school trip to Japan last year that she was inspired to ensure visiting international students get a warm welcome when they walk through the doors at Pacific Christian School.
While overseas Boothman says she was greeted by friendly faces and hospitable attitudes from Japanese students.
“Every time in the halls I would wave and they all waved back,” she says.
That friendly response altered her views on how Canadian teens should greet and communicate with international students, and upon her return home she changed the way she interacted with visitors to Canada in the hallways and classrooms at PCS.
“I just started hanging out with (international students) at lunch because they’re always in their own little group,” she says. “Now we’re pretty good friends; we hang out on weekends. They feel welcome, I think. That’s important, because it’s hard to go to another country and not speak as well as other kids. And then high school’s tough just in general, really.”
In a school where roughly 10 per cent of the student population comes from another country, the Grade 10 student’s outreach creates an encouraging environment for those who might hesitate to make friends while at PCS.
Despite Boothman being the youngest student on the school trip last year, John Slofstra, international program co-ordinator and assistant principal at PCS, says her actions demonstrated great maturity.
“I really admire this girl,” Slofstra says. “The average Canadian kid might be afraid to approach an international kid because the communication might be difficult. I’ve seen her be the only Canadian kid in a group of eight or nine international kids.”
Having experiencing being an international student herself – not knowing the language or seeming to fit in – Boothman felt lucky to be greeted with warmth, rather than discomfort. She returned to PCS with a new perspective on what it’s like being a teenager in a foreign school, and she wanted to help provide a similarly positive experience to incoming international students.
Slofstra says Boothman’s inclusive attitude is integral to the international program at PCS.
“I think she develops long-lasting friendships with these students,” Slofstra says. “It makes the international kids feel good, feel accepted. She makes that happen, which I think is remarkable.”
Her uncanny ability to transform what could be uncomfortable moments into lasting memories also comes in handy on Sundays, when she volunteers at Victoria General Hospital visiting elderly patients.
“I think she does a lot for the older people. I think that’s really putting yourself out there,” Slofstra says. “(She naturally overcomes) what could potentially be an awkward conversation with somebody … I think that’s pretty cool. She’s doing things that a lot of kids wouldn’t do because they’re afraid to or it’s outside of their comfort zone.”
Boothman, who aspires to be a pediatrician, recently moved to Victoria General, after almost two years at Royal Jubilee Hospital. She began volunteering in July 2012, two days after her 14th birthday, the minimum age to volunteer.
“I started working as a volunteer talking to patients, keeping them company, doing whatever I can to help them. The first few times it’s nerve-wracking; there are awkward pauses,” Boothman says. “You can’t say ‘how are you doing?’ You have to choose what you say.”
That social support for patients is the teen’s strength, says Kathy Nies, manager of volunteer resources at Royal Jubilee and Gorge Road hospitals.
“What she really shone at was she did visits on our acute care (units),” Nies says. “People get pretty lonely and they love to see young people. Grace has such a nice manner to her, she was very attentive and appropriate with people. Very understanding that, though they may want to visit for a short period, they may become tired and she would leave.”
The volunteer co-ordinator describes 15-year-old Boothman as a mature young woman, always respectful, appropriate and sensitive to others’ needs.
“Her people skills are superb,” Nies says. “The visits on the nursing unit is, I think, the hardest assignment, especially for younger volunteers because they’re going into a room with somebody they don’t know. They are listening to that person and talking to that person. That’s hard to do.”
Boothman also trains new hospital volunteers and works the book cart – wheeling donated books and magazines into patient rooms, which often turns into a visit. And she’s ready for that.
“Most of (the patients) have been to war – they like talking about that, or what you do and don’t do in life. They encourage and want to help, which is funny because you’re there to encourage them,” she says. “A lot of the patients I see don’t have family here or have lost someone. I want to make them know that people still care.”
Boothman’s schedule is also kept busy with work as an after-school tutor, playing on the school’s volleyball and basketball teams, playing soccer with the Saanich Fusion U16 team and hip-hop dancing.
“Gracie is a wonderful young lady who lives life enthusiastically and is friendly to everyone,” says David O’Dell, secondary principal at PCS. “She is a hard-working, dedicated student who finds great joy in serving others and contributes to a positive atmosphere here at PCS.”