Note: This is a two-part interview. To read the other half of the interview featuring outcoming FIRST Canada president Mark Breadner, click here!
How did you initially become involved with FIRST Canada? Tell us about your journey from that starting point up until now.
It all started for me back in June 2005. I was switching schools and my new principal knew I was into technology and asked if I was interested in starting a LEGO Robotics team – the TDSB at the time was offering a free robot and free registration! How could I say no to that?! So this nice lady shows up at my school to drop off my robot before the summer break. We start talking about life and I mentioned that I was about to have my first child at the end of August and wasn’t sure if I could commit to running a FIRST LEGO League team in the fall because I just didn’t know what life was going to be like at that time. This kind lady smiled and said, “No problem at all. If you find you can’t run a team just let me know and we can retrieve the robot to give to someone else. Does that sound fair?” I thought that was very fair so I agreed. And that was my introduction to FIRST’s Gracious Professionalism and a fine lady who would go on to become a friend of mine, Rhona Breadner.
From there, I ran two to three teams FIRST LEGO League teams each year and began to take on some leadership of the TDSB’s program in a volunteer role. In 2008, the Provincial Director (a volunteer role at the time) was leaving the country and they needed someone to replace him. Because of my work in the TDSB, the Regional Director at the time knew me and we chatted about coming on board as the Provincial Director. I accepted and kept teaching and coaching. By the time 2010 rolled around the program had grown to the point where it felt unmanageable on top of my teaching career, and at that time Mark reached out and asked to come on board half-time to help run the FIRST LEGO League program and in 2011 that turned into a full-time position. The program continued to grow more teams and more events and the largest endeavour during that window was in June 2014 when we ran the first-ever (and only, so far) Canadian Open with teams from 22 different countries joining us in Toronto for a 4 day event! It was a lot of fun!
Then in the fall of 2019, we were fortunate to be able to pick up Annika Pint as a new staff member to help run FIRST LEGO League because that year we kicked off the FIRST Tech Challenge Program in Ontario and I spearheaded that launch. The FIRST Tech Challenge is a great program and it is exciting to see the interest from new schools and from existing FRC teams! I look forward to seeing it grow further in the years to come.
You were recently promoted from Vice President to President of FIRST Canada. Please give us a brief overview of what you hope to accomplish in your new role.
This coming year will be a big rebuilding year for FIRST Canada so our focus will definitely be on bringing back as many teams and events as possible while maintaining some of the great things we’ve done/learned this year.
Aside from a healthy rebuild year next year, I hope to continue the great work that Mark Breadner and the FIRST Canada team have been doing in recent years, especially with respect to our focus on the underserved areas of Ontario which is connected with EDI. Making FIRST accessible and accessed by those who wouldn’t normally participate is a big goal of mine and of FIRST Canada’s. I’d also like to look at how we can better track, support, and engage our alumni. You are all such a rich pool of talent that can help us move our mission forward! And there are ways that we can support YOU as you navigate the early stages of your post-secondary and careers. We’d like to be able to support you!
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role?
I’m most excited to see the growth and impact we can make within our underserved populations – FIRST changes lives and gives kids purpose and hope and there are so many opportunities in the workplace for the skills developed through FIRST experiences that I’m really looking forward to reaching more and more kids across Ontario.
What did a typical day as Vice-President of FIRST Canada look like?
It’s not as glamorous as it might sound! Lol
There isn’t a typical day really – each one is different which keeps it interesting. There is a lot of email and online meetings with staff to plan events and communicate with teams which takes up a lot of my time. Working with our Progam Leads at FIRST Canada has been a great experience for me this year. We have such a strong team who are so professional and just do whatever it takes to “get it done”. This was especially evident with how we were able to shift from our traditional way of delivering the program to our stimulus opportunities for teams and the online events we held throughout the year. Another really interesting part this past year was being involved in the work FIRST Canada has done on the FTC SIM which has been a fun project. I’ve never worked on a project like this and so it’s been interesting to see that come to life and even more exciting to see the feedback from the community locally as well as globally regarding the FTC SIM.
What do you wish other people knew about FIRST Canada?
I wish more people knew about FIRST Canada – we still hear way too often that the general population has never heard of us and we need to change that and make FIRST a “household name” so that more kids can be exposed to FIRST experiences.
What has surprised you the most in your time with FIRST Canada?
By far, it’s the dedication of our volunteers – I can’t believe the time, effort, and talent that our volunteers, a lot of whom are alumni, and sponsors, give to FIRST Canada. Our volunteers are so dedicated to all levels of our programs and the alumni have been such an integral part of our success over the years. It’s quite remarkable when you think of it. We really couldn’t do it without all of these people.
If you weren’t working with FIRST Canada, what would you have been doing instead? What do you think your life would have been like?
I was a teacher in the TDSB before I was hired by FIRST Canada and I’d like still be in education in some way if I was not with FIRST Canada. I’d probably be working at the Board office in a central position at this point as that was one of my goals before I came to FIRST Canada.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
That’s hard to know because I’m not entirely sure how people perceive me…some might think I’m extroverted because I’m at the mic at events sometimes but I’d say I’m more introverted than extroverted. I like my quiet time so I understand the need for a Quiet Room at our events and I’m glad we’ve moved in that direction for those who need them.
Other than that, I love playing pretty much any sport, love climbing, am an animal lover, an environmentalist, a big foodie, and raise monarch butterflies in the summer as a family tradition. 🙂
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to aspire to a similar path as yours?
First and foremost, treat others along the way as you would like to be treated. Assume positive intent in your interactions with others. Gather as many experiences as possible, say yes when asked to take on projects, look for a good mentor (or lots of them), do work you enjoy and are passionate about, and work hard and with integrity in whatever role you’re in – you never know who you could be impressing, and either way, you’re building skills that will help you 🙂 I think following those guidelines will bring you success in life.
What was the best thing to happen to you after you started working with FIRST Canada?
I’m not sure what the “best” thing to happen has been but one of my favourite moments was hosting the FLL Canadian Open in 2014. The event was so much fun and put FLL in Ontario on the world map for sure. It took such a huge team of volunteers to pull that off and it was just a lot of fun and inspiring to see the teams from all over the world coming together to compete against each other, learn from each other, and be inspired by each other.
What are your favourite pastimes outside of your career?
I really enjoy spending time with my wife and kids. We’re really close and they bring me a lot of joy. I really enjoy learning about and applying health and nutrition in my life and sharing that with others! Some volunteers in FIRST are astounded by the amount of fruit I eat, but who doesn’t like fruit?! 🙂 I like exercising and playing sports. My favourite sports to play are probably hockey, football, and water skiing. I also like a good book to read, although sometimes find it hard to fit that one in.
What is your favourite food?
Tough one…there are so many…right now…probably my favourite meal would be a good ‘bowl’…they can be so varied depending on what you’ve got at home, are super filling, and the sauce brings everything together. If I had to pick a cuisine, I’d probably say “Indian” is my favourite but I really do like almost anything (plant-based).
What is your favourite movie?
My single favourite movie might be “Remember the Titans”. So many good threads in that movie on which one can pull.
My favourite series is probably the Marvel universe series because I love superheroes and maybe the Harry Potter series because I loved that book series and thought the books did a great job of portraying my visions of what was happening in those books.
What is your favourite book?
Tough one… in the “for fun” category, I really liked the Harry Potter series and I just finished the “Gone” series which was interesting…the “Rule of 3” was also a great book by Canadian author, Eric Walters. “Five Feet Apart” was a good tear-jerker and gave me insight into those living with Cystic Fibrosis. If you’re into non-fiction, I think one of the most life-changing books you’ll read is the China Study.
What is your favourite song?
I’m not really a music buff… but at the same time I do like most music genres depending on the mood I’m in… a lot of 80’s music was just fun…but I always found myself using Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” in slideshows I made for kids at school, it’s a classic – I always loved dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl” 🙂 The Pentatonix are incredibly talented – especially the guy who does all of the sound effects… they’re fun to listen to.
Knowing what you now know about life, what would you tell your teenage self?
Enjoy the time you have in each stage of life. Life’s so precious and each stage has its challenges but live in that moment and enjoy that time.
Last but not least, if you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
Spiderman was always my favourite hero – I could relate (as I think most of us can) to his struggles growing up…and Uncle Ben’s quote, “with great power comes great responsibility” has such deep truths that relate to so many social justice issues that it’s hard not to pick a Spiderman superpower… but aside from all of that, I’d still likely pick flight…to be able to fly would be amazing… it just gives such freedom and would be so much fun to be able to travel in the air up above everything else.