Ontario Education Minister Stephen Leece, centre, paid a visit to St. Demetrius to support their efforts in aiding Ukraine. Joining him and a couple of students from the school were, from left: Toronto Catholic District School Board Associate Director of Education Adrian Della Mora; TCDSB Ward 2 trustee Markus de Domenico; Lily Hordienko, principal at St. Demetrius; and TCDSB Director of Education TCDSB Brendan Browne. Top photo from Stephen Leece Facebook

‘We are staying strong together’

  • March 11, 2022

Two weeks into the war in Ukraine, Lily Hordienko, principal at St. Demetrius Catholic School in Etobicoke, received a phone call from a parent letting her know that their son would not be in school that day. The family, the mother told Hordienko, hadn’t slept a wink all night. Her father was taking the train from Kiev to their family home in the western part of the nation. The train was under bombardment by Russian forces, The anxiety and uncertainty of the journey in midst of the crisis prevented parent and children from getting any rest.

The collective trauma of the war in Ukraine is something the students and staff at St. Demetrius are living and breathing every day, says Hordienko. One of three Eastern Rite Catholic schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), 50 per cent of the staff and 100 per cent of the student body at the kindergarten to Grade 8 school has family in Ukraine. Roughly 25-30 per cent of the students were born there.

“They are children living in an adult world right now,” said Hordienko, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Ukraine when they were children. “They can’t process. We can’t process it either but we’re adults. They are children. You see them growing up right before your eyes because of what they’re dealing with.”

As a school, they are doing their best to keep any news media outside of their day-to-day operations as most are already immersed in what’s happening in Ukraine at home. During the daily announcements, they pray for the country and sing both the Canadian and Ukrainian national anthems. They have had the school psychologist, social workers and guidance counsellors on site but at this point Hordienko says more than anything else they are turning to each other for support as they walk through these difficult times together.

“I’ve never seen the students and the community so heavily worn,” said Hordienko. “You can see it in their eyes. It’s fear, it’s sadness. There are so many emotions happing right now. We are staying strong together, but you can see it, it’s certainty taking a toll.”

Hordienko and Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce have been working together to get more supports for the children, many of whom have been struggling to get through their daily school routine, she says. In preparation for the “emotional aftermath,” they are working to ensure those supports are in place to help students to process all that is happening.

Rev. John Tataryn, pastor at the school’s affiliate parish, St. Demetrius, right next-door has been at the school even more often than usual as they navigate through the confusion and uncertainty. On Ash Wednesday, they held a school prayer service for Ukraine at the Church — their first gathering for service since the start of the pandemic. In addition to all the staff and students in attendance, TCDSB director of education Brendan Browne, Ward 2 trustee Markus de Domenico and Minister Lecce, among other associates, were there to show support.

“We learn in our classrooms and in our faith of the great battle of good over evil and this is a battle that we wage together to defend our brothers and sisters, innocent people who want to live a free life,” said Lecce in his remarks at the service. “Today I’m here to stand with you because I see your pain and I can’t image the suffering of your family back home. Know that blue and yellow will be the colours that bring us together to end this illegal and unprovoked war.”

Among the many initiatives happening in the school and surrounding community, the school has been selling short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts in support of the people of Ukraine through their school uniform website (https://stdemetriusonline.square.site). Displaying the colours of the nation’s flag, printed on the front is a blue heart with the yellow silhouette of the eastern European nation in the centre, and the words St. Demetrius written inside the heart. Printed on the reverse is #StandWithUkraine. Students formally presented the T-shirt to Lecce during the prayer service. All proceeds from the sales are going to help Ukraine.

Luba Slavatynska, president of an International organization of Ukrainian communities called Fourth Wave, has a 13-year-old son at the school. The organization has been fundraising to help the children in Ukraine by collecting humanitarian aid such as clothes, baby food, and dry goods from families connected to the school. The collection during the first two weeks of the war was so overwhelming, they had to pause donations until the collected items could be shipped and more room could be made for storage. In the coming phase of their efforts, they hope to galvanize support for Ukrainian families coming to Canada as refugees.

A mother of five sons, ranging in age from two years to 20 years old, Slavatynska says the older boys have been working hard with the organization to help package supplies and attending rallies. Recently an 18-year-old dual citizen, Yaroslav Hrytsiuk, a student at Archbishop Romero in Toronto, flew back to Ukraine to help defend his home country.

While the oldest students at St. Demetrius are only 14, Hordienko says there is definitively a sense many would want to do more. Slavatynska has been encouraging her sons and other young men that there is a role for everyone whether in Canada or Ukraine to show tangible support for the country.

“Some of our children have older brothers who are on the frontline,” said Hordienko. “There are a couple who have spoken about their brothers here who want to go and join. In reality, I think we might be seeing more and more of it as time goes on. I know that our (children at St. Demetrius) are too young to do that but they do talk about that saying that if they were of age, they would be going.”

“Everybody has their own job that they can do,” said Slavatynska. “If you stay here you can help support Ukrainians. I don’t want to make more stress for the children. There are (many) ways for them to help from Canada.”

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