Pop or soda, the generic term for carbonated beverages has been a source of friendly debate between soft drink aficionados for decades, depending on the geographic region they call home. Niagara University students have chosen to settle the dispute through a good-natured competition in the name of a good cause.
Since the start of the fall semester, members of the university's EAGLE (Experience And Growth in Leadership Education) Leadership student group have been collecting can tabs for the Tabs for Kids Fund, an organization that recycles aluminum, using the proceeds to purchase wheelchairs and related equipment for children with physical disabilities.
To make the collection more interesting, EAGLE members proposed a tab-raising competition between students who call the fizzy soft drink "soda" and those who refer to it as "pop." Two envelopes were placed above recycling bins in all of Niagara's residence halls, one labeled "soda" and the other "pop." Students could then vote for their favored designation by placing tabs in the corresponding envelope.
In addition, EAGLE leader Sean Farber, Class of 2013, constructed a necklace that he wore on weekends, which essentially served as a traveling donation center. To maintain the propriety of the competition, the "Tabs for Wheelchairs Travel Unit" allowed contributions to be counted toward the "soda" or "pop" totals.
On Dec. 6, Robert Hampson, the blind young man who essentially founded Tabs for Kids at age 5, appeared at NU to accept the more than 37,000 tabs that had been collected on Monteagle Ridge. Supplemental cash donations and a $1,000 contribution from the Niagara University Student Government Association (NUSGA) brought the NU community's total monetary gift to $1,101.
"This is by far the most we've ever received from a school in the United States," said Cheryl Hampson, Robert's mother and guide, who accompanied him on the trip from their home in Toronto.
For years, the Hampsons have traveled from city to city to not only retrieve donations, but also to spread awareness of the difficulties faced by those with visual impairments. Throughout their hour-long appearance at Niagara, Robert Hampson coupled a biting wit with examples from his life to illustrate what it's like to live without vision.
"At first, when I was learning to find my way around, I bumped into many things - people, trees, brick walls, and I walked off the end of a deck at least three times," he said. "I'll tell you, that water is really cold once the ice sets."
It was evident that Robert Hampson, who swims competitively, water skis, scuba dives and rock climbs, has learned to use humor as a coping mechanism for his impairment, such as when he talks about his experiences with skydiving and downhill skiing.
"Guess what, no fear of heights," the 19-year-old joked. "The ground doesn't look that far down to me."
At one point, Cheryl Hampson invited the approximately 35 students in attendance to simulate what it's like to be blind by walking up and down the Dunleavy Hall auditorium's stairs with their eyes closed, using a partner as a guide. The students were then asked to describe their experience following the activity.
"You have to really trust the person you're walking with," one student said.
"I found it really irritating when the amount of light would change depending on where you were in the room," commented another.
"Everything seems to be a lot busier. You can't really focus on any one sound or thing," added Mitch Alegre, EAGLE coordinator.
The roots of Tabs for Kids were formed when Robert Hampson was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after his fourth birthday. Surgery to remove the tumor left him blind but did not take away his ambition. At age 5, he began collecting soda tabs and, after eight years, sold the accumulated tabs to a recycler, generating enough money to buy a young boy a wheelchair.
"When I was 5, someone told me that it was possible to make a wheelchair out of recycled pop cans," Robert Hampson explained. "I wasn't sure how they were going to do it, but it seemed like a great idea in my 5-year-old mind. After all, I considered myself lucky. My arms and legs worked perfectly. I wanted other people to be able to do the same fun things that I could."
Farber and fellow EAGLE leader Gabi Sorrentino, '13, came up with the idea for the can tab drive while brainstorming about potential experience-based learning opportunities for the group prior to the fall semester. After taking a survey of the campus, Farber and Sorrentino realized that there was an abundance of tabs that were either recycled or discarded - with cans - by university students, faculty and staff. An online search alerted them to Tabs for Kids, which prompted a phone call to Robert Hampson and the launch of the initiative.
While EAGLE members will continue to accumulate tabs indefinitely, "pop" enthusiasts claimed short-term victory on Tuesday by less than 1/5 of a pound, or approximately 300 tabs.
Of course, in this case, there were numerous winners.
"What you are doing right now is so amazing," EAGLE member Ian O'Rourke, '12, told Robert Hampson toward the end of his presentation. "I'm so inspired right now and I'm so grateful for you coming out to share your story."
For more information Tabs for Kids, visit www.poptabsforwheelchairs.ca.