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The Power of Youth: The spirit that makes a difference!

Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
March Honour Society Reception
Newmarket, Ontario
March 6, 2002

Thank you for the introduction Peter...and invitation to participate in this special reception tonight. Buenas noches, bon soir, wahn an, kon ban ha, guten abend, good evening everyone.

Whenever I speak to an audience that includes young students (or as Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. says "Generation I" - the first generation raised on the Internet), I'm tempted to go with a topic that will help you understand banking/bankers a little bit more - a topic that will leave you on the edge of your seats! So I started out with technology notes, sprinkled some bank history into the mix (RBC is 133 years old you know) and then added the most exciting part - the bank's economic perspective. In any event, the finished product begins with a short story that has absolutely nothing to do with bankers or banking...I can actually see many relieved faces in the room!

An impressive senior high school student in the U.S., Andrew Wright, decided to visit three universities in neighbouring states to help him make the right choice about his education - his future. The first stop was the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After Andrew talked about his academic achievements/career aspirations, the head of recruitment picked up a golden telephone and a couple of minutes later said, "Thank you, God" and hung up. Andrew was informed he would be a good candidate for Michigan. After inquiring about the golden phone, he was told that the phone is a direct line to God...that God advises the university which students are good, very good and excellent candidates. Andrew then asked if he might use the phone to contact God, as he had a few questions of his own. "Of course you can", replied the recruiter, "but it will cost you $300.00. Calling Heaven isn't cheap." Andrew was disappointed, as he didn't have $300.00.

His next stop was Indiana University in Bloomington. After the initial conversation about academic credentials/career aspirations and work experience, the head recruiter picked up a golden telephone and after five minutes said "Thank you, God", then hung up. This time Andrew was told he would be a very good candidate. Andrew mentioned he had seen the golden phone before and asked if he might use the phone to contact God. "Sure you can", replied the recruiter, "but it will cost you $250.00. Calling Heaven isn't cheap." Not having the money, Andrew left to visit the Ohio State University.

Upon arriving at the recruiter's office in Columbus, Andrew noticed the golden phone again. After chatting about academic credentials/career aspirations, work experience and all sorts of things, the recruiter asked him questions about community volunteer activities...and then she picked up the phone to talk with God. After ten minutes, the Ohio recruiter said "Thank you God", and before she could say another word, Andrew asked her what it would cost to call Heaven from Columbus, mentioning that Michigan and Indiana wanted up to $300.00. She smiled and said, "Nothing at all. For one thing, it's a local call from here. And for another, when God heard about your volunteer work in the community, he wanted to chat with the excellent candidate who has the right stuff and thank you for making a difference - so I didn't hang up...God's on hold for you right now"!

This story isn't about whether each and every one of you decides to attend university this fall or in the years to come, it's not about what a university, college or employer has to offer and it has less to do with what's written about you on paper. It's about leadership, it's about initiative, it's about attitude, it's about confidence, it's about speaking up, it's about listening, it's about relationship-building, it's about connecting and it's about giving...and the "it" is your future.

I came across the story on the Internet last month...and although it's a variation to the original text of the author, Jean Cavanaugh, of Columbus, Ohio - the story reminded me of the Pickering philosophy, it reminded me of RBC Financial Group's community leadership activities/recruitment practices and most importantly, it reminded me of the power of youth and the spirit that makes a difference.

So while we're together for the next few minutes, I'd like to chat with you about community spirit - the spirit in you that makes a difference - and the power of volunteers - the power of youth.

Incredible volunteers in communities across the country continue to contribute both time and talent day after day, week after week. It's simply amazing! Ever since I led the RBC team in Manitoba thirteen years ago, the number of volunteers that I've crossed paths with has grown exponentially. And I can say with great pride that I especially enjoy working with young volunteers - like the impressive students who have been honoured here tonight. Their spirit is contagious and their energy is boundless.

In my current government and community affairs role, I interact with various politicians, business leaders, lobby groups, ethnic communities, entrepreneurs, aboriginal peoples and volunteer associations. I often see many of the very same people at fund-raising events/dinners, in boardrooms other than their own, or at school functions such as this one; I frequently see familiar names on letterhead, when reading "we need your support" letters from Chairs of various community, volunteer-driven campaigns. And I often receive phone messages from colleagues that have less to do with business and more to do with their connection to a volunteer organization. As I look around this room, there's no doubt I'm in the midst of many parent and young volunteers...somehow we find the time!

So it's no surprise that volunteering is on the rise in Canada, according to the most recent National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. "In 1977, 5.3 million Canadians donated their time and energy to make an immeasurable contribution to their communities. The increase in that number to 7.5 million in 1997, almost one-third of the country's population, shows that the passion to make a difference is growing. Today, individuals who are between 15 to 24 years of age have joined the volunteer forces in record numbers. This group (which includes many of you) and whose number of volunteers has almost doubled, believes that by participating and helping others, they can acquire valuable interpersonal and job-related skills that will open the door to increased job opportunities".

Royal Bank's Letter In Praise of Volunteers, suggests that "the idea of giving something back to the community of your own free will seems to have undergone a revival among the people who were least expected to be interested in voluntary service. Community affairs offices in Canadian high schools have been mobilizing students to help the disabled, entertain children, drive people to and from hospitals, tutor slow learners, baby-sit for working mothers and the like, which only adds to the continuing good work being done by organizations like 4-H, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides. The late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 1979 for her work among the poor in India, put the idea of service into perspective when she said: We feel ourselves that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the oceans would be less because of that missing drop".

There's another Royal Bank Letter, The Importance of Teaching, which emphasizes the critical role a teacher plays in the molding of a young student's thinking and future, very similar to parents. Positive circles of influence in a young person's life, including mentors and close friends, cannot be underestimated in value. In many cases, the spirit that makes a difference manifests itself in the early years. I have copies of both Letters with me, if anyone is interested in reading more...

The tremendous value of volunteer service involving youth has not been lost in Ontario or at Pickering College. As you know, all Ontario high school students must contribute 40 hours of community service to earn a diploma. And Pickering College holds Service to Others as one of the highest codes of the school. Your Community Service Program teaches you that support is needed and helps you realize that there is a responsibility to helping others.

"It also teaches students the value of their work in the community and provides them (all of you) with invaluable opportunities to learn about the needs of other people". The benchmarks are even higher at Pickering, a school that has led the way with a Community Service Program since the early 1990s.

The benchmarks are also high at RBC Financial Group. Community leadership is hugely important to RBC, our customers, employees and stakeholders, not to mention the communities in which we operate...and to me. Behaving in a socially responsible manner is not just something we want to do...it's something we know we must do. RBC believes that by contributing our funds, our networks, our leadership and most importantly, by encouraging and celebrating the involvement of our people, we can make a difference. The power of community leadership is all about building relationships and making connections - reaching out and touching people in a way that makes a difference.

Although there are many examples that illustrate the importance of building community relationships, I'll let our Community Report 2001 speak for itself. Instead, I'll focus on an area of interest that means a great deal to me - aboriginal peoples. After moving to Winnipeg in 1989, I was greatly disturbed by what I saw/heard in the core of the city and in remote aboriginal communities. I made up my mind to speak up and speak out on the issues impacting aboriginal peoples and keeping them from taking their rightful place in Canadian society. I've continued to do so since returning to Toronto.

For instance, at the Curve Lake First Nation just north of Peterborough, there's no local high school so aboriginal students attend school in Lakefield. When local community leaders witnessed a significant dropout rate, they started an alternate, experiential high school program to ensure these young people would at least earn a high school diploma. Every few months the students came to Toronto and visit various places, including RBC and more recently, my office. One young man said he needed a smoke and wanted to go up to the roof on the 40th floor of the bank building. I said he couldn't smoke here and I couldn't get on the roof. He still wanted to go upstairs so I said okay. The 40th floor of the Royal Bank Plaza in Toronto is our boardroom area...I took them up. There's a large table, about four times the size of my office, and they sat around and we had a great chat. But what struck me most was one 18-year-old, who had dropped out of school in grade 10, and who said with tears in her eyes, "Mr. Coffey, one day I'm going to sit at this table and tell you what to do".

I've told this story to a number of people who ask me how they can get more involved in helping aboriginal youth. It doesn't take too much, but we need more role models and young people to lead the way - to make connections - to take action - to show you care. There's a cost to doing nothing and there's also a cost to not doing enough. The power of youth... it's the spirit that makes a difference.

Speaking of making connections, here's some information that will help get you further linked:

  • The Aboriginal Youth Network (AYN) is a website designed by and for aboriginal youth to create a unique online community from coast to coast. The AYN is a place "to connect, make friends, access information and exchange ideas about cultures and traditions". If anyone wants to connect with aboriginal youth in the Toronto area or around the country, I'm sure your teachers and parents will help you make the connection...and so will I. Please let me know if you need any support.

  • Youth Assisting Youth (YAY) is a non-profit organization that provides a preventative community service through building "special friendships" between at risk younger children and youth volunteers. "YAY's volunteers act as positive role models in the lives of young people by offering guidance, advice and support. For a child who is experiencing behavioral, social, emotional and/or cultural difficulties, having a friend to rely on/confide in makes all the difference in the world".

  • Historica.. If you haven't already done so, find out more about Canada and high school students around the world at this site, especially through YouthLinks. You can only imagine how one link connects you to another, with a focus on volunteers and volunteer service.

By the way, I have a handout for each student here that lists the web sites for Aboriginal Youth Network, Youth Assisting Youth and Historica, plus more on volunteers/volunteerism for quick and easy reference. And speaking of web sites, DiscoverTeenergy.com put together some thoughts about making people's lives better. I chose the Top 10 ways to "Be Successful in Life" to share with you tonight (I've taken some creative license re a couple of entries on the list):

#10. Learn something about everything and everything about something. Inspiration will come to you.

#9. Don't stop too soon if an idea seems to be failing. Push further and it may become successful.

#8. Want your dream to come true with a passion. Get involved. Make choices.

#7. See the end results clearly and stay focused on them. Don't get lost in details along the way.

#6. Use your imagination. Dare to think and dream the impossible. Who says it can't be done?

#5. Be organized and plan things out. Value your time.

#4. Record your ideas - write them down or input them on your computer. Don't trust your memory.

#3. Be honest. People will appreciate you and help you more if you tell the truth.

#2. Build positive relationships with ALL the people you meet. Build bridges not walls.

#1. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer...the rewards are limitless. It will make a difference in your life!

Special congratulations to the Headmaster's Honour Roll - it's a privilege to be among diverse students who strive for excellence and understand that continuous effort produces results. Sounds like a profile of a volunteer to me. And at the risk of slightly embarrassing my daughter Catherine...once again, I'm also a proud dad this evening. I learn a great deal from Catherine and many other young people about the value of community leadership...and this learning only makes me want to do more!

We all live in this not-to-be-ignored "wired, networked, window-to-the-world, global village"...it's a new millennium culture that surrounds us - that takes much of our time and energy. However, this not-to-be-ignored complex (and very uncertain) world needs a volunteer nudge from the power of youth on a regular basis...after all, it's your spirit that makes a difference. Perhaps the new Lieutenant-Governor and first aboriginal LG in the province of Ontario, James Bartleman (who will be installed into office tomorrow) will get "the nudge" early on ...I'm sure he'll continue our focus on young people/volunteer service. To all of you, good luck and good volunteering in your communities!

In closing, I'll quote Charity Smith (couldn't have asked for a better first name in terms of my remarks) from her Valedictory Address last year at Pickering...it was Oliver Wendell Homes who said, "The greatest thing in the world is not so much where we stand as the direction we are moving." The power of youth talking about the future! Charity gets it and I think Andrew Wright from my original story gets it too...after all, how many people can actually put God on hold!

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