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SDSS student wins prestigious $70K scholarship

Eco-club founder Sammie Orr is one of 20 students Canada-wide recognized for leadership and perseverance

Over the course of the pandemic, one Stratford and District Secondary School (SDSS) student has consistently demonstrated leadership and adaptability in the Festival City. 

Now, her talents and perseverance are being recognized on a national level.

Sammie Orr is one of this year’s TD Community Leadership scholarship winners, one of 20 student-leaders across the country, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, recognized for their endeavours. 

That recognition is in the form of $70,000: a full ride scholarship. 

“In the beginning, I was like, ‘I'm probably not going to get the scholarship. It's massive … but there's no chance that I'm gonna get it if I don't even apply … I'll just throw my name in there and see what happens.”

Orr and one of her mentors, Christine Ritsma, Green Industries teacher at SDSS met with StratfordToday in Ritsma’s classroom. The room overlooks a portion of the grounds and the school’s greenhouses, where Orr works with the Deep Roots eco-club. 

As Ritsma explained, Orr had nothing to worry about. 

Orr was one of the founders of the school’s much-publicized eco-club, which organizes events and collaborates with other community groups. Through the eco-club, Orr was also elected as the youth representative on Stratford’s municipal energy and environment committee. 

Notably, when the pandemic started and with it a take-out food container waste spike, Orr helped start a group to reduce waste. They consulted 10 local restaurants and sourced a reusable food container supplier.

Also under her leadership, the eco-club won the Canada-wide 2023 Canadian Youth Climate Action Award from Pivot Green. 

Sammie Orr addressing the crowd that gathered at city hall in November to protest Bill 23. Connor Luczka/StratfordToday

“(It was) probably one of the easiest letters of references to write,” Ritsma laughed.

Ritsma explained that in the year that Orr was getting started at SDSS there was a merger of two schools coming together. It was a time of transition and because of that pockets of students formed. Orr was one of the students – one of the “misfits” as Orr put – that stayed in Ritsma’s class for lunch. The Eco Club grew out of that group. 

“We just kind of talked about environmental issues at lunches whenever we were feeling like it,” Orr said. “And we did some videos about recycling and stuff like that. And then we tried to make it a little more public and reach out to the broader school community.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit midway through Orr’s high school career, Ritsma argued that it was her resilience and leadership that made the group cling together. It was also Orr’s leadership that expanded the group to go above and beyond.

“We had meetings that she organized Saturday mornings online,” Ritsma said, highlighting just how extra the extra-curricular club was. “We got together. That's crazy … they all did that while suffering from the limitations of COVID. They didn't miss a beat. They got bigger and better and bolder.”

It is Orr’s ability to push her peers to do better and find their best that makes her such a great leader, Ritsma said. While Orr wouldn’t flat-out agree with Ritsma on that, her expression of what true leadership is matched her teacher’s. 

“I never intentionally set out to become a “leader,” Orr explained. “I think if someone goes in with the intentions of becoming a leader, it's often not true leadership. I think true leadership comes from valuing the group's productivity and the group's well being … Leadership is going in and trying to make connections with people and making connections with people for a bigger idea, for a goal.”

Orr, along with 19 other award winners, were invited to the announcement in Toronto. The prestigious group had a diverse list of accomplishments. One student was in the process of starting a not-for-profit. Another student raised money to sponsor women in Uganda to come to school in Canada. 

Orr said that it was amazing to see the other winners and what they have done across the nation. 

As for the future and what her scholarship will go towards, Orr has been accepted to the University of British Columbia for forest sciences. She hopes to pursue conservation and nature-based solutions to climate change. 

And when it comes to her scholarship, she was quick to name all the people who helped her along the way. 

“I wouldn’t be here without Ms. Ritsma,” Orr said, to some protest from her teacher.  “I wouldn't be here without every single one of our Eco Club members. I wouldn't be here without my mom. I wouldn't be here without every single mentor I've ever had. My name is on the scholarship but for me it means so much more. 

“It's a community behind it.”