• Teacher Koryn Heisler with Barj and Rita Dhahan

    News: Donations help feed special-needs students

    Alumni come to the rescue at John Oliver Secondary. Donations to help feed special-needs students and fund literacy program.

    By Gerry Bellett, originally published in The Vancouver Sun on January 20, 2014.

    Several members of the grad class of 1975 showed up at John Oliver Secondary on Monday, bringing with them $22,500 in cash and cheques and a promise to raise a $100,000 endowment to ensure teacher Koryn Heisler’s special-needs students never go hungry again.

    Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan and his wife Rita, both John Oliver grads, are spearheading the drive to raise the funds as a result of a Vancouver Sun Adopt-A-School story in November that described Heisler’s struggle to feed some severely disabled students in her life-skills class.

    “That’s why we are here, because of that story,” said Dhahan as he and his fellow grads met principal Timothy McGeer in the lobby of the East Vancouver school where the group handed over the $22,500.

    About $10,500 of the money went directly to Heisler so she can provide breakfast, lunch and snacks for her students, a number of whom come to school hungry, without having had breakfast and with no food to see them through the day.

    “That’s the money from myself and Rita,” said Dhahan. “The rest (raised from among his family and former grads) is to be used to start the endowment.”

    He was accompanied by his two sisters, a niece, and his wife’s parents, all of whom have ties to John Oliver.

    The $10,500, plus another $4,000 received from other donors after The Sun’s story appeared, will enable Heisler to feed her class for at least three years.

    Before the donations, she had been feeding them out of her own pocket.

    “It’s just wonderful. It’s so overwhelming what people have done for us,” said Heisler. “It will mean so much for the children.”

    The endowment will be used to provide food for Heisler’s class and to support the school’s Wonder of Reading Program designed to help students having difficulty with literacy, said McGeer.

    “I’d like to express my sincere thanks and deepest appreciation for the kind generosity of the John Oliver alumni coming together to support our life-skills program and the Wonder of Reading literacy fund. It’s only through partnerships like this that we can do what we need in order to support our students,” said McGeer.

    Dhahan said the necessity of feeding hungry children speaks for itself, but he also wanted to help students struggling with literacy and numeracy and has been contacting old school friends for help with the endowment.

    “My parents were immigrants, I was an immigrant, so I know about challenges with English literacy and numeracy and the need for help after school. We want all kids to have equal opportunity in reading and numeracy so they can excel in school and in life beyond,” said Dhahan.

    Artist Jeanette Lee, who attended John Oliver with Dhahan and Rita, said she was glad Dhahan had contacted her for help.

    “John Oliver gave me opportunity in my life, so it’s wonderful that we have this chance to be there for these kids,” said Lee, who recently won an award for public art in Richmond.

    Dhahan will be working on the endowment with his school friends and Pal Beesla, who graduated in 2000 and is a member of the executive of the Khalsa Diwan Society, which Dhahan said was the oldest Indian organization in North America.

    “We will be working with Pal to promote the endowment and develop a fundraising event involving the society later this year,” said Dhahan.

    Any person who wishes to donate to the endowment can contact McGeer at the school at 604-713-8938.

    Photograph by: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun

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