All Saints students’ ‘grad trip’ to impoverished Dominican Republic

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BY JED CHOWN

For most high school seniors, a grad trip signifies one final escapade with people with whom they’ve spent four years traversing the school system.

For the Podgorski siblings, grad trip meant embarking on humanitarian voyages to Central America and the Caribbean.

Mark and Michael Podgorski, a pair of brothers who attended Holy Trinity High School in Kanata, were diverted from the grad trip by their parents, both educators who believed in the value of travel and experiential learning.

Instead of a weekend away with friends, they voyaged to poverty-stricken countries to work with impoverished students in schools funded by their high schools. Mark, now 30, was sent to Consuela in the Dominican Republic. Michael, now 37, went to a small town in Mexico.

They gained what they now view as a much more valuable experience.

Now both educators–Michael teaches at St. Paul’s High School, while Mark is at Kanata’s All Saints High School–they work together to run programs in their respective schools that do for their students what their parents did for them. Every year, like partner schools in Montreal and the Maritimes, they take teams to the Dominican, where they stay with local families and get involved with the community.

Things have changed since Mark was a student, he says.

“A Canadian guy who ran the original program closed it. We didn’t want it to all disappear, so my brother approached Ray Peralta, one of the guides we’d known since I was a student on my trip. We asked him if he wanted to do it on his own, and he said yes. He’s with Fundacion Pasos de Esperanza.”

Over the past six years, Mark has brought 96 All Saints students to the Dominican. His program has succeeded in building a pre-school, Escuela All Saints, for around 40 Haitian immigrant children in Batey Margarita, a sugar cane plantation community. It also pays for two teachers and students’ snacks. His brother’s program at St. Paul’s has built and funds an elementary school called Little Saint Paul’s in Simon Bolivar, one of the poorest slums in the capital, Santo Domingo.

“The headmaster at the elementary school says the kids are better behaved in terms of structure and routine than the kids who don’t go to our preschool, so it’s beneficial,” says Mark. “The parents haven’t got a lot of nutrition or family education so the kids have no structure otherwise.”

On February 29, he and his fellow coordinators, Cheryl Orzel, Danielle Baillie and Tracey MacPherson, will lead a sixth trip with a team of students.

Before then, to raise their goal of $13,000 to support the school, the All Saints Dominican Team will hold a fundraising wine and cheese night and auction on November 20th to raise money and awareness for the cause.

The auction will take place at All Saints in the main foyer, between 3pm and 11pm, and will feature a range of auction items donated from businesses and the community. Along with the money, the students will bring donated clothes and personal care items in 40 hockey bags that were donated by Trudel Home Hardware. They will also bring backpacks stuffed with school necessities gathered by homeroom teachers.

“We ask for donations from the community, we bring them to the storage room, then sort and organize them. We take used clothes, toiletries, school support items, gently used warm weather clothing.”

Of the value of the trip to his students at All Saints, he says it’s about learning “the value of relationships and people. You see the importance for family. You come back and prioritize things differently, you realize what’s important. The students who go understand how and why those people are in the situation and they can be more critical thinkers.”

As a student going on the trip this year, I hope that I’ll be able to be as deeply influenced as Mark Podgorski and the people who have gone on the trip before me.

As an individual, I care deeply about international affairs and see this trip as a way to broaden my own experience and understand the world around me. I see it as a great way to introduce students to humanitarian affairs and the world outside of Canada. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for learning, and will give the students involved, including myself, real experience they can apply to countless countries like the Dominican Republic.