Although a Saanich resident, Isabella McNamee adores Oak Bay High, intentionally selecting it upon leaving Cedar Hill middle school because of the myriad programs and opportunities.
“You can step foot into Oak Bay High in Grade 9 and say this is my section, for me it’s arts, and you have 30 different ways to express that,” she explained.
Right upon entering the school, the avid dancer tackled a rite of passage at Oak Bay High, applying for the Hero Holiday, submitting an essay alongside 150 of her peers.
As one of about 30 selected, the 15-year-old spent her spring break on a humanitarian adventure to Vicente Guerrero, Mexico to build houses for impoverished families.
“It was amazing. I have 32 new best friends,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about. You know they’re good people. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t.”
She worked on a home built for a mom and dad with a nine-year-old girl. The mother also had two children working in Tijuana who she hoped to lure back with a home.
“It took us four days. I thought it would take years,” McNamee said, of the house built for a family of three in Mexico. The group built two homes, and furnished them right down to toys for the kids.
In the 18 months between group selection and the trip, the group raised $32,000 and gathered bags full of donations.
They held a jail or bail at school, silent auction and masquerade ball and a ‘last dance’ in the East Gym at Oak Bay High that drew alumni.
McNamee travelled south with two big bags full, one completely stuffed with donation items. She returned with one light bag.
“Your nice shoes, the runners you’re wearing, you leave,” she said. “Everything there is being used more that it would be here.”
“I’ll definitely be involved with Hero Holiday again next year. What that role is, I don’t know,” she said.
Her work with the Hero Holiday program and dedication to dance and sharing her knowledge are among the reasons she was awarded an Oak Bay Young Exceptional Star Award.
“I never thought of myself as one of those kids,” McNamee said of the award.
McNamee has spent her life dancing and using it as a tool to give back to the community.
From the age of three she danced with Dance Unlimited Performing Arts until last year when she shifted to a pre-professional program at the West Coast Academy of Performing Arts where she trains in ballet, modern and jazz dance alongside general conditioning work.
“I love it. It’s six days a week,” she said. “It pushes you to the breaking point. There’s something about leaving a class with your ballet shoes over your shoulder and dripping in sweat. It’s great.”
Despite the time consumed by the rigours of her own dance, she still finds the time to be an influential part of the Oak Bay High school dance program. She has become one of the lead choreographers in the program, a position usually held by a more senior student.
“I’ve always just wanted to share everything,” she said. “I love teaching; it’s one of my favourite things in the world. I love sharing knowledge.”
She’ll teach youngsters to have fun this summer, spending July as an intern with Saanich Recreation working summer camps.
“You’re having a play date every day. It’s going to be absolutely amazing and I’m going to learn so much,” she said.
With a teacher for a mom, she knows academics are important, and maintains an A-average.
“Doing my best is all I can do,” she said. “I know if grades start to slip, dance starts to slip.”