Tuesday 14 January 2014

Mourning the passing of educator and Explorations founder Bertha Dawang

As a parent of a child who attended Explorations, probably one of the  most rewarding day-camp format summer experiences a youngster can have  in this city, I got to know Bertha Dawang quite well. She was a co-founder of the program for boys and girls aged four  to 18. Up until last summer, she oversaw every aspect of the operation, with some key collaborators and a solid staff including skilled teachers from the public and private school systems and the university level.

“Do not call them counsellors,” she would frequently say. “They are teachers.”

And that they were, teaching classes such as music, art,  photography, dance, cooking, debating, fencing, build your own computer from scratch, exploring Montreal,  designing clothing  and a panorama of sciences.

The program was originally a designed as a summer school for gifted youngsters, but has broadened its mandate since then.  "This is now an enrichment program for all kids, because we feel that everyone is gifted in different ways,” Bertha would say. “We want to give everyone a chance to explore areas of learning which are not part of their regular curriculum.” 

When I first connected with Explorations as a parent eight years ago, Bertha told me she was almost ready to step down. “One more year,” she said.
Bertha Dawang

I would hear that line repeatedly. Explorations was too much part of this retired public school principal and teacher's life. I could see her enthusiasm from the moment the annual open house took place each June to the first day of activities when she could manage multiple conversations at a time. By the end of each day she stood guard at the door, making sure no parent or guardian she was unfamiliar with passed by.

It was only last April, when she got the horrible diagnosis of ovarian cancer, that Bertha reluctantly had to step aside. She lost her battle on January 11, leaving behind her devoted husband of 56 years Elie, two children, four grandchildren, a sister and an endless array of friends and admirers.

“Bertha is about the only person I would take a day off work for  to attend a funeral,” said a shaken Ian Hanchet, a gifted music teacher at the English Montreal School Board who runs the wildly popular School of Rock program at Explorations. “She was a true mentor to me.”
Bertha and Elie both retired together some 20 years ago. Elie was not only her partner in life, but he too could be found in the Explorations office each morning for the four  week summer experiences dealing with parents and staff. During the winter they would travel to foreign countries, such as Cambodia and the Czech Republic and often teach. In all they criss-crossed the globe and made about 50 different stops.

While Bertha was known for her tough exterior, I could always see her soft spot. She was an incredibly special person who always loved a cause to fight for. In recent years she could even be seen participating regularly in public question period at Westmount City Council meetings  over traffic concerns on a residential street.

During funeral  services, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow shared the story about Bertha attending a meeting of the former Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal head office. She went to the washroom, only to find they had two-ply toilet paper. It seemed the schools only had one-ply. “She would not stand for that kind of inequality,” said the rabbi.

Her son Stephen, who lives in Toronto, last saw her over the December holidays. “I had a full life,” she told him in what would be their last face to face.

Bertha was only 76 years young and there is no doubt that she would have maintained her active lifestyle for many years to come. We were told that even in her poor health, she still hosted an Explorations board meeting at her home in November.

Explorations, a partnership between McGill University and the EMSB, is sold out every summer with very little publicity. A few years ago Bertha brought noted educator Cliff Buckland to serve as her co-director and successor. He will steer the ship well. But there is no replacing Bertha. She was one in a million!

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