When students want to learn, everyone wants to be involved in that, regardless of the learning taking place.
Founder, Ripple Foundation
We recently caught up with Ivy Wong, Founder of Ripple Foundation—a charitable organization that fosters creativity in youth across Canada. Ivy is an entrepreneur who wanted to use her skills and passions to give back to her local and national community. Her story serves as a tangible example of what becomes possible when young people, regardless of background or circumstance, are connected to interest-based learning opportunities within their community. As you read, imagine what role the Ripple Foundation would play in a robust community-based ecosystem of learning.
Q: What inspired you to launch Ripple Foundation?
Ivy: My entrepreneurial journey began in 2001 with the launch of Splash Interactive—a digital media solutions company. A decade later, I wanted to expand our service offerings, so I started a second company called Ripple Digital Publishing, which was focused on creating e-books and educational applications for kids. At this time, I wasn’t thinking about starting a foundation. I was simply grateful for the work I had on my plate, and the publishing company was like my playground for exploring my interests.
But, in 2012, I started thinking about what it would mean to give back through something that was also a passion of mine. Creativity has always been a huge part of everything I do; it’s what drives me. So, how could I combine that interest with giving back?
I first considered launching a non-profit initiative through my publication company—a writing contest for kids. If you talk to a six year old, they’re super creative. They can look at something around them and just spin off a story from thin air. So, I thought I would have this writing contest, select and publish the winning book, and donate all sales of the book to charity.
To get the word out about the writing contest, I gathered a mailing list of all 256 school boards across Canada and mailed out a letter, along with a brochure. Three months into the first contest, I didn’t receive a single entry. I was freaking out. So, I began sending another round of direct mail to some schools and kept hammering away at reaching out to people via email.
On deadline day, I ended up with nearly 200 entries, which was very exciting. But, now I needed to read each of the entries. I had my staff and myself, but I didn’t want to be the person driving it, so I created a judging panel and a scoring system that each entry would be judged against. Four books were eventually selected for publication and the revenue from each sale was donated to First Book Canada.
I did the writing contest for three years and then a friend asked me if I was looking to expand my work. She encouraged me to check out Volunteer Toronto—a website where nonprofits and charities post volunteer opportunities. I created a job posting for the writing contest and overnight, received over 30 requests to volunteer, so now I had help doing outreach and more for the writing contest.
With the support from the volunteers, by 2015 and the continued growth in popularly of the contest, it made sense to take the initiative out from underneath my private publishing company and register as a non-profit called Ripple Foundation.
Q: What was the next opportunity you saw now that the writing contest was going well and Ripple Foundation was officially registered as a non-profit?
Ivy: Although all entries in the writing contest were done with a valiant effort, some were written very well, while others needed some work. It was clear that some kids could use a little helping hand when it came to their creative writing abilities. Enter my next idea: to create free writing workshops.
I was fortunate to meet a grade school teacher with over 20 years of teaching experience. She sat on our board and helped us develop the lesson plans for our Write It Workshop. We partnered with the public libraries and hosted over 80 workshops, both in the city and in remote areas, in our first year. These workshops were all run by volunteers, who mostly wanted a way of giving back to their local community.
In 2018, with the writing contest and the writing workshops in full swing, we were specifically serving children from 4th-8th grade. So, I started wondering how we could keep them engaged throughout high school as well. I did some digging around for ideas and noticed there weren’t really any good reading options for youth written by youth. High school students are often more receptive to advice from their friends than from adults, so what if they had something they could read that was written by their peers?
That’s when we started the Wave Blog. Each writer submits a resume and writing sample, and then I interview them over the phone and we discuss what they want to write about and share with other students. Our professional editor reviews all blog posts, and we work with them throughout the writing process, so they feel like their voice is heard and they are writing something that will connect with their peers.
It’s funny because schools are very good at getting students to write essays and papers, but most of the time it’s research based on other people’s ideas. Young people don’t really get many chances to write in their own voice and express themselves. So, when I work with students, I notice some find it challenging expressing themselves.
For example, I might have a student interested in writing about why they feel veganism is good. The author will submit a generic article that could be found in one hundred places online. There’s no personal experience in the story as to whether the author is vegan or how she came to be a vegan and why she thinks veganism is good. So, getting over that hurdle of finding ways to bring their unique voice and personality to a piece is what we help students do.
We started out by publishing two blog posts a month and last year, increased it to one blog per week, which is where things stand today.
Q: What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on the foundation’s work?
Ivy: Ripple Foundation was able to pivot well during the pandemic. We moved our in-person workshops to a fully virtual experience, which actually allowed us to expand our reach to more isolated communities in places like Yukon and New Brunswick.
At the beginning of this year, our attendance increased by 300% with around 50 participants attending each workshop. Each workshop has five facilitators, so when they go into breakout rooms, you have 10 students with one facilitator, which allows each student to really have their voice heard and engage more deeply with the experience.
During this year’s writing contest, we received 685 entries, which was double the number we received the year before. There are many things that led to this increase, but one of the unique influencers over time has been the local press each of our winners receives by their local papers. They’re like local heroes. The foundation itself has also received press in outlets like CTV. This has really helped us get the word out and receive more interest throughout Canada.
Overall, the beautiful thing about Ripple Foundation is how organically it has evolved. I didn’t sit down to write a business plan with everything thought through before the launch. We applied and received charity status in 2018, so we could apply for grants and sponsorships; we already had our programs in motion and could focus our attention on expanding and making them more accessible. We’re close to 100 volunteers strong at this point and looking forward to the work ahead.
Q: You mentioned in the beginning that you are passionate about creativity. How does that passion connect to the work Ripple Foundation is up to?
Ivy: Creativity is the starting point for anything great, and it can be expressed in many different mediums. I chose writing because it’s about communication, literacy, and has a general education component to it. Everyone has ideas, but if those ideas are locked in your mind and you can’t communicate them, that’s a problem. Our programs are really about young people having the chance to be creative and giving them a voice, so they can really express themselves.
Every great inventor, every great discovery that has been made, couldn’t have happened without creativity and imagination. It’s how we have evolved as human beings. I believe that creativity is the skill of the future, and literacy is necessary for life success.
Going back to our focus with the Wave Blog and encouraging students to express themselves, the power of students writing from a place of personal interest is huge. It’s important for the writer and for the reader. During the interview process with our authors, we ask them which of our blog posts were of interest to them. Every time, what’s interesting to them are the posts they can connect with, which makes it that much easier for them to understand that writing about their personal story will be important to others. That’s so empowering.
Q: Why is it important for young people to express themselves? And, what has providing that opportunity through Ripple Foundation’s programs revealed to you?
Ivy: Giving young people the choice to express themselves in the ways that make most sense to them is fabulous. Many kids don’t know how to express themselves, and it leads them to thinking they aren’t good enough. They first need to be told, “No, you are good enough.” And then be invited to explore how they prefer expressing themselves. Perhaps most importantly in that exploration is to understand you don’t need to be great at it right off the bat.
Using writing as an example, you don’t have to write technically well to want to express yourself in that way. Technical things like grammar can be taught. What I want young people to focus on first is understanding how to express themselves. Put it in simple words and then we can work together to get more creative in that expression.
The advice from our editor for the blog is always to simply write as the author speaks. Don’t try to be too clever. You’re able to speak. Just write down what you’re saying, and we’ll refine it from there. The editing process is a long process. Even the best writers have to go through an editing process.
One of the great things about working with our writers is that we are very direct in our feedback. And, they are okay because they know our goal is to help them get better at writing. When teens know someone is interested in them doing better, they will give you their best effort and be responsive to the improvements you suggest.
Since all our programs are free and extracurricular, kids who sign up for our programs are coming ready to learn. They are interested in learning about how to be better writers. When young people show up already interested, as an educator, that’s wonderful. There’s no need to filter the feedback we give because everyone is on the same page.
It’s also why we are able to attract volunteers because they are working with such great students all of the time. When students want to learn, everyone wants to be involved in that, regardless of the learning taking place.