Hetty van Gurp named Reader’s Digest hero
January 9, 2007
Founder of Peaceful Schools International, Hetty van Gurp of Granville Ferry, has been working with students, teachers, and administrators internationally to create a peaceful environment in the hallways and classrooms of the world, and to inspire an attitude of caring and acceptance between youth and their peers.
Recently named one of Canada’s Heroes of 2006 by Reader’s Digest, van Gurp now works from home with a full time volunteer occupation, helping PSI volunteers across the world share resources between schools working toward the goal of establishing an environment of peace.
Van Gurp was nominated anonymously for the title by a man from Ontario, and was honoured in the field of education among a group of four other highly regarded humanitarians from different sectors, including Canada’s Stephen Lewis, recognized by the magazine for his contributions to public life.
For van Gurp, creating a peaceful school is about teaching students how to care for others, she says, and to appreciate the diversity of the world.
“I think it (this attitude) teaches them to be caring and responsible citizens… to make good choices and resolve their problems in a peaceful manner… to be caring and accepting of differences and being appreciative of diversity.
“The root of a lot of conflict is intolerance. I very, very strongly believe that these kinds of lessons are as important as…science….math [and so on].”
Once a teacher and principal for the school board in Halifax, van Gurp saw first hand the forms of violence that take place at school and the need to create a peaceful environment where all students, without exception, could feel safe.
“I always had empathy for kids that hurt other kids. I could always understand the behaviour… [which stems from] either unjust treatment at home or something in their lives… It made me more understanding and therefore more tolerant and [motivated] to want to help these kids.”
Then, in 1998, she experienced every parent’s worst nightmare. Van Gurp lost her son during an incident at school where a bully pushed him into a stage, breaking his back. Rather than look for something or somebody to blame, she was moved to work toward giving her students an education in peace and a safe environment where they could flourish.
“After Ben’s death, all I wanted to do was to work diligently to see that the children in our classroom would feel safe.
“It is part of our responsibility to ensure that kids are safe at school…No child is born with an urge to hurt somebody. If kids are becoming more violent…sadly, it’s our legacy to them.”
Van Gurp’s earlier teachings naturally grew and evolved outside her own classroom, as she started to receive calls from other schools interested in her approach.
On a leave of absence from the school board in 2000, she traveled around the world to learn more about schools in other countries and the challenges they were facing. It was upon her return to Canada that van Gurp decided to start Peaceful Schools International, which has since unfolded of its own accord. Rather than prescribe peace education, the vision of PSI is to help schools and students help themselves, she says, by sharing resources and ways of creating a peaceful environment.
“It’s to create an environment within the school where any kind of violence is unacceptable – unacceptable by everyone.
“They (the schools) don’t all have to use the same method to arrive at that goal. We just try to support them along the journey… to be both a catalyst and to motivate schools to try new ideas.”
Creating such an environment of peace involves everyone, from the staff and students, to the parents who want their children to thrive at school as in life.
“I think this is something that concerns every adult. Every parent wants their child to have a full and productive life.
“It’s not a program per say. It’s more of a vision and an attitude… The initiatives that are prescriptive in nature don’t often succeed… Every school is very different, very unique.”
As for being called a hero, van Gurp says that the recognition she has received is an indication that the importance of cultivating and inspiring an atmosphere of peace at school is being recognized throughout the country.
“Kids now know they have a right to be safe at school… I accept the recognition as an acknowledgement that the work and the belief in peaceful schools is now in the mainstream…is now accepted.”