Some of the clothing donated for Ukrainian refugees soon to receive First Communion at Toronto’s St. Demetrius School. Photo courtesy Lily Hordienko

School steps up for Ukrainian refugees

  • May 3, 2023

As First Communion approaches for the St. Demetrius Catholic School community, many members who had fled Ukraine and its war found themselves in need of more than sacramental nourishment.

So the school community has stepped up to provide First Communion clothing to allow Ukrainian refugee families to fit in as the young receive the sacrament.

Staff recognized the need for dresses and suits for these children who arrived in Canada with next to nothing, says school principal, Lily Hordienko. Almost half of the students at the school are in need of as much assistance as possible.

This year alone, the Eastern Rite Catholic school has welcomed 175 Ukrainian refugees. In total, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the school has taken in roughly 220 refugee students. Many of these families consist of mothers who have travelled to Canada alone with their children, leaving the father’s behind to face the war.

Families of their classmates began donating communion suits. The school’s affiliate church community, St. Demetrius the Great Martyr Parish, has also stepped up and a post on a parent group site on social media brought donations of 12 dresses and nine suits.

A section of the school library has been dedicated to the collection of communion garments as well as clothing for students’ upcoming Grade 8 graduation. The school is still accepting donations.

“We’re trying to do everything we can for these people who have come here fleeing a war,” said Hordienko. “Most of them are coming with nothing, just a bag with a few items. We want them to have their dignity and we want them to try to have as much of a normal life here whether they are staying or going back.”

Since the war in Ukraine broke out more than a year ago, the school has been putting the Catholic Education Week theme, We Are Many, We Are One, into tangible action. One of three Eastern-rite Catholic schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, many of the staff and 100 per cent of the student body at the kindergarten to Grade 8 school have family in Ukraine. Roughly 25 students have returned to Ukraine with family, many of them missing their father’s, says Hordienko.

Beyond communion suits, new children that come to the school are given uniforms, backpacks, lunch bags and shoes. Families also receive gift cards to help purchase staples for the household. With the surging cost of food, the school also has a pantry in the library that is replenished with food every week and given to families in need to take home, as well as toiletries, some medical supplies and diaper.   

Trustee Markus di Domenico has advocated on the school’s behalf, collecting funds to buy gift cards for the those in need. Hordienko says none of this would be possible without staff going the extra mile to help make sure the children and their families feel welcome and have what they need.

“These teachers are not teachers, they are honestly angels from Heaven,” said Hordienko. “They are so dedicated and go so above and beyond every single day. They don’t just teach these children but are looking after every aspect of these children’s lives. It’s incredible. They are going in the evening to buy something because it’s missing in the pantry. It’s truly unbelievable… People would be floored if they saw it, really.”

The school also provides lunches for the students four days a week. People give through the parish to pay for the food and women from the parish along with staff prepare the lunches.

The school currently has more than 430 students. Before the war started it was at just over 250. Six portables have been ordered to expand capacity, which will bring the total to eight.

The influx has completely transformed the school, says Hordienko, who has had to hire a number of new staff, not the least of which has been those providing English as a second language and mental health supports.

“We’ve literally gained 175 ESL students,” said Hordienko. “Some have seen awful things. Some of them have lost their father during this war. The needs are greater than just a regular school year.”

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