• 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

  • Teacher Koryn Heisler with Barj and Rita Dhahan

    News: John Oliver alumni start fund to feed kids

    Dhahan family’s endowment aims to give $5,000 annual grant for school’s life skills program.

    By Gerry Bellett, originally published in The Vancouver Sun on Dec 25, 2013.

    Vancouver businessman Barj Dhahan wants to ensure teacher Koryn Heisler will never again have to worry about how to feed those severely disabled and impoverished students attending her life skills class at east Vancouver’s John Oliver Secondary.

    Dhahan who attended John Oliver — as did his wife Rita, his two sisters and much of his family — is seeking to raise a $100,000 endowment which could result in the school’s life skills program receiving an annual grant of around $5,000.

    “Both my wife and I went to this school and we are really touched by the work Koryn is doing,” said Dhahan.

    “I have already got $20,000 committed to the endowment and I will be going to other family members to add to it and I am also appealing to former JO students to help raise it,” said Dhahan.

    “We want to make sure that this teacher and these children are going to be protected against the kind of budget cuts that removes her ability to teach or help feed her students,” said Dhahan who is president of Sandhurst Group, one of the largest franchise holders of Tim Horton’s restaurants and Esso service stations in Metro Vancouver, among other commercial real estate holdings.

    What Dhahan is proposing has never been done before for any school that has been part of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign.

    At the end of November, Heisler was at her wit’s end trying to protect her students from the worst effects of budget cuts and had asked the Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for help.

    Heisler was faced with students arriving at school without having eaten breakfast and with little or nothing to eat for the rest of the day. She was using up her meagre classroom funds to feed them porridge and toast in the morning. But the money would have run out by spring, and she would have had to pay for the food herself — as she did last year.

    Heisler was also hobbled as the stove she was supposed to use to teach students how to cook sat useless in the corner because the school district’s budget didn’t provide the $800 needed to hook it up.

    However, following a Vancouver Sun Adopt-A-School story of her plight Nov. 21, offers of help came flooding in.

    “It was amazing,” said Heisler who met with Dhahan and his wife just before school ended for Christmas holidays.

    “We had people stopping by that first week giving me money and asking how they could help and the phone never stopped ringing with offers of support and donations. People were sending in Christmas cards with money inside and dropping off food and casseroles.

    “It was completely overwhelming.”

    The Vancouver South Lions Club which operated a Christmas Tree lot on school property came in with a $400 donation for food and committed to pay for having the stove hooked up.

    “The work order for the stove has gone in and hopefully it will be on the priority list for January,” said Heisler.

    The money she has received so far is being spent on improving breakfast for the 12 students in her class.

    “Right after the article came out we went on a big shopping trip and revamped our breakfast program. Now we give them eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt — it’s a healthy breakfast now,” she said.

    Dhahan was greatly impressed with Heisler.

    “What she is doing is beyond the call of duty. She’s working in a very challenging environment without the many things she needs yet she is very peaceful and quiet and has an inner strength and conviction. She’s a wonderful teacher and the kids are very lucky to have such a compassionate and caring person,” he said.

    “I think as a society we often don’t recognize the amazing work teachers like Koryn are doing in the school system,” he said.

    Dhahan, who has donated before to Adopt-A-School, said he was upset with the idea that the most needy of children appeared to be suffering the most from education cutbacks.

    “Whether by birth or circumstances or upbringing there are some of us in society who are disadvantaged and resources should not be pulled away from those people. If we can help them be self-reliant, society gets paid back in the long term,” he said.

    Anyone interested in contributing to the endowment can contact John Oliver school principal Tim McGeer at 604-713-8938.