John Oliver graduates repay school with gift of reading

Vancouver couple leads fundraising drive for literacy program

When Barj and Rita Dhahan heard in November about disabled students arriving with empty stomachs at John Oliver secondary school, they decided to fund the life skills class’s breakfast program for the next three and a half years.

“We both looked at each other and I said, you know Rita, this is our school, we went here. I think we should do something,” Barj Dhahan said.

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And when JO principal Tim McGeer made a presentation to the Fraserview Rotary Club, to which Dhahan belongs, about the Sunset school’s extensive literacy programs, they acted again by leading fellow John Oliver alumni to pledge raising $100,000 for the school’s Wonder of Reading Legacy Fund.

The Kerrisdale couple and JO graduates presented cheques totalling $22,500 at the Sunset school Monday morning, ahead of Family Literacy Day Jan. 27. Much of the money came from the Dhahans and their family members, with contributions from other former students.

John Oliver secondary, along with 23 community partners, held a massive literacy event in September to launch its Wonder of Reading campaign.

Low levels of interest in books, reading and language have been reported in the Sunset community.

“The educational attainment [of] 16 per cent of the JO parent population is about Grade 9,” McGeer said.

Some homes lack books, the money to buy them or the understanding that literacy is linked to brain development and dropout rates, he added.

McGeer says teachers at JO have noticed that a significant percentage of their students are starting Grade 8 with Grade 3 or 4 reading skills. They start preschool with a deficit that continues throughout their education.

“These kids are just as smart, just as able, just as loved as any other kid, they haven’t had access or engagement with literature, it’s just that simple,” McGeer said.

“The more they read the more neural connections you create, the more language you have, the more neural resilience you have. You apply that to different areas of your schooling and your life. The more you read the more you dream, the bigger you dream because it just is creating brain capacity.”

Dhahan attended JO for grades 11 and 12, graduating alongside Rita in 1975.

A commercial property owner and Tim Hortons and Esso gas station franchisee, Dhahan recalls three English, creative writing and literature teachers at John Oliver who inspired his appreciation of reading and writing.

“We’ve been really blessed so we feel this is a small way to give back to the school that provided me a great education,” Dhahan said.

“Not only for economic prosperity, but for wellness and health and the community’s prosperity, we need to ensure that our kids have equal access to learning.”

He said his desire to help comes from his upbringing.

“I was raised up with the idea that whatever you earn, give a tenth of that to those who are in your community,” he said. “Give wherever there are needs.”

Dhahan said anyone interested in donating to John Oliver should call the school.

crossi@vancourier.com
twitter.com/Cheryl_Rossi

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