Giving gesture creates ripple effect
Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse is making an impact both on and off the ice.
On May 25, just hours after setting a new NHL record for most ice time in a playoff series and then rushing to fiancé Mikayla’s bedside to welcome their newborn son Aiden, Nurse was on a Zoom call with staff and students from St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School to present the inaugural Darnell Nurse Excellence Scholarships – his way of giving back to the school that he credits with setting him on the path to success.
Nurse, an honours graduate from the class of 2013, approached the school in late 2020 about creating a scholarship in his name. He and his mother Cathy had been shopping around for the right charity where he could “make an impact in people’s lives.”
“That’s when we came to the realization that a scholarship at St. Thomas More could bring much change,” said Nurse. “You know, you talk about the coming together of ethnicities and people of different backgrounds and different financial statuses – it has it all. St. Thomas More, for me, was one of the most inclusive places I’ve ever been part of.”
The Darnell Nurse Excellence Scholarship, to be awarded for the next three years to two graduating students at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, will ensure that deserving students are not hindered in pursuing their post-secondary aspirations because of financial need. Interested candidates were invited to submit an essay which showed, among other criteria, how they have overcome difficulty and excelled at school. More than 32 essays were submitted for consideration.
On May 25, the first two Darnell Nurse Excellence Scholarships – valued at $40,000 per student – were presented to Tharani DeSilva and Kiarra Melanson. Their essays – which cited some of the hardships they both have faced over the years – had Nurse, admittedly, “damn near in tears.”
DeSilva, who immigrated from Sri Lanka as a young child, said adapting to a new country was made a little easier thanks to the kindness of “real life angels” – teachers and other individuals who mentored her along the way. Although many out-of-school activities were out of her family’s reach, DeSilva’s hard work, coupled with scholarships and other financial incentives, enabled her to upgrade her math and reading skills, participate in swimming and piano lessons and enrol in McMaster STEM summer camps. In high school, a whole new world was opened up to her. There she played badminton, joined Step Dance and the Math Honours Society, and participated in Science Olympics, the Walk with Christ Pilgrimage and Morebotics. Wanting to give back for all the opportunities that she had been afforded, DeSilva volunteered more than 300 service hours to school and community projects, including a four-year commitment as an Executive Committee member of STM’s Halloween 4 Hunger Initiative.
Noting that her early challenges were reminiscent of some of the struggles that his grandfather and father experienced when they first came to Canada, Nurse, who was joined on the Zoom call by his parents, Cathy and Richard, commended DeSilva for not only taking on those hurdles but turning them into a challenge.
“On top of that, you want to get into one of the hardest fields there is – cancer research – and you have a 99.5% average which I have never heard of before.”
“Congratulations, cause wow – if I was bringing those marks home …”
DeSilva, who will be studying Health Sciences this September, said that the scholarship has removed all financial worry and will enable her to focus on her studies.
“Beyond my education, I will give this charity back to the world by becoming a prominent oncology researcher with ties to global wellness initiatives,” she pledged. “With this vision, I can reimburse the compassion I received from my childhood to the next generation as this kindness never goes out of fashion.”
Kiarra Melanson, the second scholarship recipient, has encountered challenges of a different sort. After a childhood marked by mental health and addiction issues, Melanson found support as well as a sense of purpose at St. Thomas More. It was during a co-op placement that she discovered that she wanted to work with children.
“I would like to become the person children can turn to when they need support, because growing up I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to,” wrote Melanson in her essay.
Melanson, who will be graduating with a 91% grade point average in the next couple of weeks, has accepted an offer from McMaster University for Social Sciences. The STM student, who has been working two part-time jobs throughout high school to save towards her post-secondary education, said “this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” has made her dream of becoming a Social Worker possible.
“In today’s society, it is extremely important that there is a strong network of support for children and their mental health,” she shared. “I aspire to be part of that network as someone who empowers children to believe in their abilities, their worth and never have to experience loneliness in life.”
Melanson’s story was exactly what he envisioned when he set up the scholarship, said Nurse, adding that his intention was to make positive change for people like Melanson who have managed to rise above the challenges in their lives.
“You are the prime reason why I came up with this scholarship,” he said. “Because I know that this scholarship is going to make so much change not only for you, it is also going to make change for so many other people.”
Congratulating the two award recipients, Nurse said that he was happy he could be a small part of their success.
“You’re going to make real change and it’s great that it began here at a school that meant so much to me.”
Thanking Nurse for his generous donation, Superintendent of Education Dean DiFrancesco, who was Principal at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School when the scholarships were being planned, added that the scholarships will have a lasting effect in the school and broader community.
“Darnell, a lot of celebrities talk the big game in terms of giving back but you truly are an inspiration to all current and future Knights because you truly believe and walk the talk,” said DiFrancesco. “Your donation over the next few years will literally transform the lives of our most deserving students. On behalf of our entire school community, I offer our most sincere thanks.”