Having spent the past 20 years working as a Speech Language Pathologist in Salmon Arm, Christina El Gazzar had been searching for a way to give back to her community.
Originally from Montreal, she had relocated to the Shuswap from northern B.C., accepting a job with Interior Health and moving with her family. For the next two decades, Christina first worked as a frontline Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) and is now a professional practice lead, supporting those in the community with speech and language issues.
But she wanted to do something meaningful for the community. Enter the Salmon Arm Boxing Club’s Hit 2 Fit Challenge.
Christina had already taken up the sport of boxing as a way to get in shape. The club challenge would allow her to share a passion for supporting speech and language development with the community and combine it with the sweet science of boxing.
“The boxing club’s challenge had three elements to it: Get in shape, raise money for something near and dear to you and then you could get in the ring, if you wanted,” explains Christina. “It really checked all the boxes for me. I had been boxing for a few years to stay in shape, but I wasn’t doing it enough. I wanted to do it four or five times a week so I accepted the challenge.”
Finding something near and dear to her heart was easy. She would raise funds to install a communication board at Salmon Arm’s universally-accessible Blackburn Park.
“Young children with communication challenges need support in order to express the most basic of human needs, such as making requests, conveying emotions and socially connecting with others,” she wrote to Salmon Arm council, seeking permission to raise funds and have the board installed in the city park. “Communication happens everywhere. Having a communication board at Blackburn Park will provide these children with the supports they need to be successful in this setting.”
The boxing club’s fundraising gala was to take place in May 2018, which also happened to be Speech and Hearing Month. So Christina went to work with her colleagues and with support from the community to put her plan in action.
Once the city was on board and council had approved, she approached community groups in town, soliciting sponsorship from the Salmon Arm Bulldogs Boxing Club, the Shuswap Community Foundation, Salmar Cinemas, the Salmon Arm Rotary, the City of Salmon Arm as well as the former mayor, Nancy Cooper.
Colleagues and Pediatric SLPs Julie Lewis and Bonnie Johnson came on board to work on the board, establishing the core vocabulary that would help youth communicate. They connected with and received input from various children’s groups in Salmon Arm and raised enough money to have the sign built.
“There are kids with communication difficulties who go to the park and this is something they can use,” says Christina. “It also raises awareness with the public. If they see the board and start talking about it, it reminds us all that there are young people everywhere who struggle with communication.”
Two years to the month that Christina accepted the boxing club challenge, this past May, the communication board was installed at Blackburn Park in Salmon Arm. There are two sides, one for younger kids and one aimed at older youth, who can point to images on the board to aid with communication.
Parent Nadine Kowaski is familiar with the speech language therapists in Salmon Arm. Her son, eight-year-old Connor, has autism and uses a picture exchange system to communicate on his iPad. A similar system of visual cues is used on the communication board.
“Having the board at the park is great,” says Nadine. “It inspires good communication among families that not all kids are verbal. I think it will be amazing, not only to help them communicate, but also bringing about community awareness of kids with diverse abilities with communication. I appreciate their hard work. The speech language pathologists in Salmon Arm are always going above and beyond.”
As for the final part of the challenge, stepping into the boxing ring, Christina also took that on, winning a unanimous decision after three one-minute rounds of boxing, as part of a gala fundraiser night.
“I didn’t decide to get in the ring until close to the gala. It was nerve-wracking. I did it once and am now retired from competition,” she laughs. “I am just thrilled that this project is now completed and can help young people communicate.”