For nearly a decade, teacher Ray Sawatsky has led students from Langley Fundamental Middle and Secondary School on international humanitarian trips.
Outside of the school community, these visits to Nicaragua have stayed under the public radar.
This was by design.
Sawatsky’s reasoning is, by going public with the school’s humanitarian work, participants would be putting themselves in front of the people they are there to help.
“Here’s the thing,” Sawatsky began before adding, “if I make a really big deal about how important we are, in going over there… what I’m saying is, ‘look at us, look how great we are,’ (and then) we are placing ourselves above the people we are there to serve. That is not fundamentally human; it’s not a good message to teach my own students.”
Sawatsky said in doing so, he’d be passing on a Messianic complex, where people think they “can go save the world.”
“(I’d be then) teaching them something that’s fundamentally flawed,” he said.
That said, he somewhat reluctantly decided to make an exception this year, as senior students from his weekly Global Education class at Langley Fundamental spend their spring break in Romania, where they will be doing a variety of volunteer work.
“We’re going to do everything from simple construction — work just to get our hands dirty — and be involved in preparing a program that serves people with disabilities to be able to open, to leading a leadership conference, to doing presentations in high schools, to actually serving in orphanages and institutions for people with disabilities,” Sawatsky explained.
The school group will also be helping out at a community centre in Hunedoara, a Romanian city with an unemployment rate ranging between 50 and 70 per cent. At the centre, student-athletes will be running basketball and volleyball camps.
So why Romania? World Vision notes that, in spite of its 3.9 percent GDP growth rate in 2015, the Eastern European country ranks at the bottom of the poverty scale. Romania continues to have the highest infant mortality rate in the EU, especially in rural areas. And, Romania has a very poor track record when it comes to the treatment of people with disabilities.
“People with disabilities in Romania are among the most disenfranchised (in the world),” noted Sawatsky.
He has visited Romania five times and says that, while conditions have improved, “in lots of ways it hasn’t.”
Sawatsky noted institutions in Romania are “very understaffed.”
“A day where a team like ours comes in, is actually a real opportunity for the people who live there, and a huge relief to the staff,” Sawatsky said.
The students, including Avnish Ramdour, who is in Grade 12, are looking forward to the experience.
“It’s my motivation to help others out, it makes me and other people feel good, and that’s something I want to do with my life (is) try to help others,” Ramdour said.
This will be familiar territory for fellow Grade 12 student, Sydney Chapman, who has gone on missions trips to Uganda and Colombia.
“But I’ve never been where there is ‘cold poverty’, which is poverty that you don’t seen as much, because it’s hidden more,” Chapman said.
Sawatsky expanded on the term “cold poverty.”
“We talk about poverty that we see in warm climates all of the time, because we have images of those,” Sawatsky said. “What does poverty look like when it’s behind a door of an apartment that has no heat, no electricity, no running water and it’s 30 below outside?”
The cost for each student is $2,300, and many fundraised to be able to go.
One of the students who will be helping at the Romanian orphanage and leading basketball camps is LFMS Titans captain, Sam Vankevich, who also is a volunteer coach for the Grade 7 Titans girls basketball team.
“I’m excited about this opportunity to make a difference,” noted Vankevich, a 6’1” point guard. “We’ve been working on learning Romanian phrases, a few kids’ songs, preparing for our sports camps and leadership conference, and also studying about the suffering of the Romanian people under the horrors of the totalitarian Communist government.”