The first grant Awesome Kingston has awarded in 2022 went to the ‘Emergency Meeting of the Tobogganing Committee.’ The $1,000 micro-grant supports local projects the Awesome Kingston trustees think will help keep Kingston awesome.
While difficult to sum up in a few brief sentences, the “Committee,” as they call themselves, has been supporting international students at Queen’s University for about 18 years now. While much expanded from their original “Sunday Dinner Crew,” the roots of this “dis-organization” remain the same: community support and socialization.
“We taught them how to shop here, took them for walks, helped with assignments, held movie nights, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc.,” explained John Casnig, who founded the Committee alongside his wife Krista. “Within the first years, we noticed that the grad students were cooped up in labs and offices all summer… depressed, lonely, isolated and overworked. Many were very stressed by their workload and the conditions for their families and countries back home. They couldn’t even make it to Sunday dinner, which was like family for them here. So, we started having barbecues right beside Queen’s where they could steal away from work for one hour, see some friends, meet new people, play some frisbee, and eat good food over the fire.”
This iteration of the “Sunday Dinner Crew” became known at the “Emergency Meeting of the Barbeque Committee,” and Casnig said the rules were simple then, and still are now: Mutual respect and tolerance.
“Those first meetings were unnamed until we made the private Facebook page called the Emergency Meeting of the Barbecue Committee, so named so that [the students] could tell their often-unsympathetic supervisor that they had an ‘Emergency Committee Meeting’ to attend, and had to go for one hour,” Casnig continued playfully. “As the summer ended and winter approached, so began the Emergency Meeting of the Tobogganing Committee, which tended to meet further away, but within walking distance and bus routes, or we would drive members.”
According to Casnig, the barbeques and tobogganing outings were always quasi-public. Passers-by were welcomed to join in if they were interested.
“This was especially important with the barbecues, which were near the hospital, where cancer and other patients would roll or stroll with their families, sometimes even to have ‘the talk,’” Casnig shared. “The relaxed, organic nature of these gatherings gave them a third-party subject that was not about death, but about life and happiness. Roasting marshmallows worked especially well for the kids, which, in turn, worked incredibly well for the parents. Similarly, tourists and other students would pass by and get included, with so many alone here in Kingston or Canada. This welcoming feel was so good and the impact so crucial that it became the cornerstone of every Committee event.”
The “Emergency Meeting of the Tobogganing Committee” is, at its core, a team of two. John Casnig and his wife Krista provide a supply of hot chocolate, snacks, water, and extra toboggans and mitts for each “meeting.” While there, they organize frequent informal races to get kids going down the hill simultaneously, which helps develops their social comfort, Casnig stated, adding that the kids are so enthused by the excitement they will run up the hill after each race, eager for the next.
“The exercise, fun and fresh air makes the kids happy, while the snacks and drinks ensure parents will have an easier time with them, as they do not grow hungry,” he continued. “We encourage parents to go down the hill too, which often results in better bonding with their kids, as well as helping the parent develop socially, as well. Many of the parents are newcomers, and have never tobogganed nor are they familiar with tobogganing culture.”
John and Krista have held these “meetings” for the pure joy and camaraderie they build, and to promote connection and social development, especially for those new to the city or country.
“Until the Awesome Kingston gift, we have operated all these years from our own shallow pockets, and with only the labour of Krista and I,” Casnig expressed. “Essentially, if you see a big group at a local park that makes no sense, it’s probably us — look for an inexplicable degree of diversity and disorder.”
Operating through a private Facebook group, the “Committee” relies on word of mouth, and yet has a great turnout at each of their meetings. They most often frequent Roden Park, and Indian Road Park, and sometimes can be found at Fort Henry Hill, Saint Pat’s school, Queen’s University near the dean’s house and Cataraqui Centre, near the library. Casnig said safety is their single strongest consideration.
“We do not attend an overcrowded hill and will not have the event if there are obstacles, an inadequate level of snow or extreme wind or cold. We will not hold races at a hill that cannot be made safe and organized,” he said.
According to Casnig, they have already made some purchases with the Awesome Kingston grant money.
So far the Committee has secured four toboggans, water, snacks, hot chocolate, and diabetic-friendly hot chocolate, 1,000 cups and lids, around 20 pair of new gloves (which they will give away, typically to newcomers), 10 pair of used gloves (for when someone’s get too wet), hand and toe warmers, a Coleman thermos, and wool socks and gloves for both John and Krista so they can comfortably extend their stays at the hills.
Casnig notes it is easier to experience an Emergency Meeting of the Tobogganing Committee than to explain it, “but we very much hope that it can become a culture at every hill, even after we’re gone,” he expressed.
“The best way for people to get involved is to copy us and do a better job than us — and never, ever, become an actual organization,” Casnig said, with tongue firmly in cheek. “This world needs to know that these things can just be a part of normal life; that the love we are expressing here is genuine and not some source of income or kudos. There is no purpose to the Committee but to make everyone happier, if even only to know it simply exists.”