Pembroke -- Sometimes dreams do come true.
Father Bill Kenney, who served as chaplain at Bishop Smith Catholic High School (BSCHS), in Pembroke in the 1980s, had an idea offering students the chance to see the world from a different perspective would be a wonderful experience.
The dream underlying the initiative was his belief individuals, even the relatively young, could make a difference in the lives of others.
For Father Kenney, the seeds of the dream were planted earlier, when he served at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Deep River because of members of the parish who had personal connections with people in the various areas of mission work supported by the congregation, including the Sisters of Providence, a religious order then serving in the Dominican Republic.
“I felt that connecting our students with students living in poverty would give them a greater appreciation of their lives and instill in them sympathy and desire to support others who did not have many of the advantages they enjoyed,” he said.
He pitched the concept to church and school colleagues and subsequently drafted a proposal for a Dominican Republic experience. The proposal was approved by the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board (RCCDSB). In April of 1989, three students, along with Father Kenney and Director of Education John Stunt and some teachers and parents, made their way to Yamasá, a municipality in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic Experience (DRE) trip became an annual event which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019.
One of the ways in which Father Kenney’s dream has come to fruition is in the work of one of the first DRE participants, Christine (now Dr. Christine) Gervais. The organization she founded, Acceso International, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Its mandate is to promote and enable greater access to all levels of education, with a focus on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada. To date it has provided over 2,500 primary level bursaries, more than 700 high school bursaries, and more than 2,000 post-secondary bursaries. It also has provided back-to-school kits to 1,800 new Canadian children and youth.
By supporting the reconstruction and replenishment (of supplies and equipment) in preschools, primary and high schools on a regular basis or in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes, Acceso has helped more than 4,000 post-secondary students, 7,000 high school students, 17,500 primary students, 3,000 preschool/daycare children and 16,000 library patrons.
But back to 1989 and the DRE trip that was spearheaded by Father Kenney. Christine Gervais of LaPasse, then a student at BSCHS and a member of the school’s social justice committee, was, with Paula Spotswood and Mike McCann, one of the three students in the first trip. The experience sparked in her a heightened appreciation of the advantages she had and set her compass firmly in the direction of helping those who did not have those advantages.
“As Christine will tell you, the experience had a profound effect on her,” said Father Kenney. “She felt she needed to do something to help, and she realized that education was an important part of that.”
Even as a student, she was contributing to various groups assisting disadvantaged people in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, she never lost sight of the need for more long-term, sustainable help.
In 1997, once she was established in a teaching career at the University of Ottawa (U of O), she founded Acceso a la Educacion (Access to Education), which is now known as Acceso International.
As she progressed along her own educational path, she became even more acutely aware of the privileges she enjoyed in comparison to so many students in other parts of the world. She went on to earn a BA and MA in criminology from U of O and a PhD in sociology from Carleton University, with the support of scholarships along the way.
“I was really grateful,” she recalled. “It made me want to give something back. I remembered the sacrifices some families make so their children can go to school. Children walk long distances, often barefoot. And I remembered the joy and passion they bring to education.”
Dr. Gervais began fundraising among family and friends. Her initial success, raising $2,000 to help students, not only confirmed the possibilities, but inspired her to develop a more structured approach. Through Canadians working in Latin America and the Caribbean, she formalized a project in the Dominican Republic to assist five university students in 1997. Since then Acceso has supported students in the Bahamas, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, as well as in Canada, where the organization is assisting with offsetting the cost of school supplies for New Canadian students from low-income families.
“We are currently active in six countries: Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Peru,” she said.
In 1993 Dr. Gervais married Waltham, Quebec native Grant Perry.
“Our families had known each other for years,” she remarked. “Grant and I had re-connected when we were both in university and had summer jobs at Sunset Nursery.”
By this time, Acceso was up and running. Mr. Perry, an accountant, brought a much-needed skill set to the organization. But his involvement quickly grew beyond financial administration.
Acceso’s work was and is very hands-on for Dr. Gervais, necessitating frequent travel to countries where projects were being established. Mr. Perry began to travel with her to support her on-site work.
In 1999, he and Dr. Gervais, a criminology professor at U of O, adopted a son, Jordan, who was then five years old. Until then Acceso’s focus had been secondary education. Since Acceso was now a family affair, the emphasis was broadened to primary-level projects.
“We wanted Jordan to be able to relate to people his own age,” Dr. Gervais said.
Jordan travelled with his parents and was very much part of the family’s work. He was part of an Amigos Club, a small group dedicated to teaching Canadian children about the cultures and needs of children in developing Latin American cultures. The Amigos Club still exists, but it’s not been active during the pandemic. Acceso has been featuring an Amigo or former Amigo each month on its blog: https://accesointernational.ca/acceso-internationals-25th-anniversary-blog/
In 2006, another son, Joël, joined the family and quickly grew into his own role in supporting other children in their education.
Now 15, Joël says that ever since he went on his first Acceso trip to the schools of the Dominican Republic when he was six, he has loved helping and going back.
“Every time I visit schools, I make new friends and always have a blast,” he said. “The people and the students are always very nice and are fun to hang around with. It’s always great to see the impact of our help from over the years in the smiles of the children. It is a humbling experience visiting the schools in the bateys because it’s a lot harder for the children to achieve their dreams.”
A batey is an underserviced rural village where sugar cane workers and their families of Haitian descent reside in the Dominican Republic.
To celebrate Acceso’s 25th anniversary, a special virtual version of its signature fundraiser, Sounds and Tastes of the Americas, was held on November 13. The annual live version of the event had offered a dinner, show and auction featuring a Latin American and Caribbean menu, Caribbean entertainment, and silent and live auctions of donated items. The live version was suspended after the 2016 edition.
“We were trying to balance limited volunteer hours amongst many volunteers who are balancing family and work commitments with volunteer contributions, and to concentrate and catch up on project management and grant reporting to foundations,” said Dr. Gervais.
One hundred per cent of the money donated goes to the projects.
“Grant and I pay for administration costs, and volunteers and family help with that,” she said. “The community and the volunteers pay for travel. The embassies help out and we get donations from businesses, such as paper and other supplies from office supply stores.”
Sounds and Tastes of the Americas has netted $355,000 for Acceso’s work to date.
“We are $25,000 short of a $2 million total of funds raised over 25 years, so we hope to raise that amount through our upcoming event and by the end of this, our 25th anniversary year,” she said.
Dr. Gervais said many people in the Ottawa Valley support Acceso projects, among them residents of LaPasse, Westmeath and the Pembroke area.
“We are very grateful for their encouragement and generosity,” she said.
Dr. Gervais’ work as a criminology professor focuses on crimes against humanity as opposed to street crime.
“Since I teach on international human rights violations during times of war and under dictatorial regimes, my employment and my volunteer interests intersect constantly and inform each other,” she said. “Any international development work must address the human rights of the individuals whose lives it is trying to improve.”
Her current emphasis is on children’s rights and women’s rights overall.
Despite her many years of contact with people with extreme needs, she continues to be deeply moved by the disparity between the life her family enjoys and the extreme poverty of so many in the world.
“We don’t live extravagantly, but we have the comforts of a peaceful country, clean water, health care and free education,” said Dr. Gervais. “You never reconcile this within yourself, but you are re-invigorated and motivated to continue with fundraising and awareness work, knowing you are still contributing something.”
When the DRE celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019, the mission has grown from a team of five who stayed with the Sisters of Providence in the Dominican Republic, to a team of more than 20 students and adult supervisors who stayed with local families, and from taking a few school supplies to taking medications, bedding and clothing. More than 400 RCCDSB students have taken part in the annual DRE since the inaugural trip.
“For any participating student or adult, the trip has been a profound experience, giving them a sense that you don’t have to have much to be happy,” Fr. Kenney said. “Many people who have much are not happy while many people who have less live joy-filled lives. I left (the RCCDSB) in 1993. It is wonderful to see that the program has carried on.”
The legacy of his dream continues: through the work of people such as Dr. Gervais and that of many other participants who have been moved to work, in big and small ways, to help the dreams of others come true.
Marie Zettler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader