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Teens Compete In 1st Annual High School Spelling Bee Championship In Canada

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While Yang Chen’s classmates at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute are worrying about acne and heart break, Yang Chen’s attention is elsewhere.

He is worrying about their spelling.

This 16 year old Toronto teen is behind an epic endeavour: to get every high school across Canada involved in a national spelling bee. Most spelling bees only go up to age 14. It’s presumed that by high school age, kids have moved on from learning how to spell. But with 48 per cent of Canada’s adult population semi- illiterate, Chen knows the importance of continuous learning.

“When I decided to do a spelling bee at my school I searched on the Internet and found The Spelling Bee of Canada. I met with the founder Julie Spence and we started talking about literacy. I was shocked when she told me that people are dying because they can’t read the label on their medication or understand how to take their prescription. I realized that without literacy you can’t succeed in life, and you could even die.”

It’s a big task for a 16 year old. In between piles of homework, Chen spends most of his free time in meetings with his school principal, teachers and committee members advocating for more attention to children’s literacy, via the High School Spelling Bee. But Yang’s motivation comes from a simple place. The Bee is the ultimate proving ground for the underdog; a chance to be heard and recognized. “I’ve never been the most popular kid at school, but I just want to bring joy and happiness to others. And I want people to know that you can do something big, even if you’re not recognized in the hallways.”

“I’m glad to see a young person like Yang taking the issue of literacy seriously. And in turn the Spelling Bee of Canada wants to support his venture. It’s so important to give young people all the support they need when they have big ideas,” says Julie Spence, founder of Spelling Bee of Canada.

While leading the school show choir, leading the school’s curling team, attending drama camp and keeping up with his favourite TV show Glee, Yang found time to start a spelling bee club at his school and to launch the first High School Spelling Bee in Canada in December 2010. “It was amazing, the auditorium was full! We raised $500 and donated it to the Spelling Bee of Canada,” says Chen.

A year later Chen realized he could have an even bigger impact if more schools were involved. He started an organization called Sp.Lit (Spelling Bee Literacy) to brand the initiative as it expanded to other high schools.“Organizing a spelling bee is a lot more work than you think, so we have a lot of interest but only eight schools were able to sign on before the deadline. By next year we are hoping to have schools from all over the country involved. The championship will be held at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute on March 28.

“That night will be something more than just a spelling bee; it’s an opportunity I want to take to inspire others, no matter who is doing the inspiring. I know that doingsomething that requires this much work outside of my academics may seem difficult, outrageous, abnormal, or plain silly to other kids my age, but what I aim for is to inspire others to step up and make a positive change, no matter how big or how small or in what area. It only takes one person to make a change, and everyone, especially youth, are more than capable of doing so,” says Chen.

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