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Message of servant leadership, volunteerism mobilizes youth during pandemic

Sam Demma found meaning after a devastating injury by taking small, consistent steps to enact big change, and he now delivers that message across North America via virtual speeches and workshops
2021 05 11 Sam Demma
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this is how Sam Demma spoke to young people.

Sam Demma found meaning after a devastating injury by taking small, consistent steps to enact big change, and he now delivers that message across North America via virtual speeches and workshops.

Along the way, Demma and a friend created a movement that has collected thousands of bags of rubbish with the help of hundreds of other volunteers, mostly in and around Demma’s home city of Pickering, just east of Toronto.

The success of that endeavour, PickWaste, which he started with Dillon Mendes in 2017 and remains active, caught the attention of school staff, initially in and around Toronto.

“From that, teachers and principals started reaching out saying, ‘Hey, can you come speak to our students about servant leadership and the importance of volunteerism and mobilizing young people?'” Demma recalled.

The now 21-year-old took that opportunity and ran with it, deferring university after a couple of months studying environmental studies and political science to focus on public speaking. He says if he were to return to school later, he would likely study psychology or behavioural economics.

"I love learning about people and why they do the things they do,” he explains.

When the pandemic hit, Demma’s calendar of speaking engagements suddenly emptied, with schools cancelling or postponing events and the young motivational speaker left wondering if he would need to go back to school or get a different job.

(PickWaste, meanwhile, saw an influx of students after an initial two-month break as high school students struggled to find volunteer opportunities required to graduate.)

But with encouragement from a coach, he instead doubled down on the endeavour, spending thousands of dollars on equipment to create a home studio complete with sound effects and multiple camera angles for virtual versions of his one-hour keynotes for entire schools and four-day, hour-long seminars for career classes.

It’s ended up expanding his reach, Demma says, since he can offer cheaper versions (there’s no travel costs) for schools “all over North America now because I don't have to cross a border. I can do it all from this little studio that I’ve built."

Demma says he has seen first-hand the negative effect the social isolation of COVID-19 has had on other young people, with some teachers saying they haven’t seen some students’ faces in months.

“My heart goes out to the kids, especially the school kids and the teachers; I see their depression first-hand when I speak in schools,” said Demma, who recently created a graduation video message for the Class of 2021, after the 2020 version garnered tens of thousands of views. 

Many of the students who take part in his presentations will start off his sessions with their cameras off, and it can be a slow and sensitive dance to get them to open up.

“I'll just be myself, delivering my content, and every so often, invite them to turn on their cameras, saying, ‘Hey it would be awesome to see you. I'd love to see your beautiful smiles.’ And then I'll play some funny music and embarrass myself in the hopes that they turn it on,” he said.

Demma can certainly relate to the feeling of lost opportunity the pandemic has created for students. After years of sacrifice in the pursuit of a professional soccer career paid off with a scholarship to attend a top U.S. college, he tore the cartilage in both knees and hips over an 18-month period.

“It was a crazy slew of injuries that took me completely out of the game, and I was lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life at that point,” he said.

He says a teacher instilled the idea that small, consistent, positive actions could create massive change, and everything since has flowed from there.

Demma is now halfway through writing a book of parables called, Dear High School Me, and has started training with the goal of completing an Ironman race in 2022.

Morgan Sharp is a federally funded Local Journalism Initiative reporter at National Observer