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OKOTOKIAN: St. Luke's graduates eager to lend a hand

“Their schedule made it able for me to be out on the rodeo road and also be able to attend classes – they had everything customized. And that school is so special, everyone there is so welcoming..."
Left: Okotokian Jessika de Bakker is pursuing a career as a criminal defence lawyer. Right: St. Luke’s graduate Jess Downey will be heading south to attend the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School.(Photos by Devon Langille)

As a barrel racer, Jess Downey is used to the clover-leaf pattern, but the educational 180 is a new trick she’s picked up at St. Luke’s Outreach Centre.

“I’ve never been a big school person and it used to give me a lot of anxiety and reluctance to go to school,” said Downey, from the Priddis area. “But St. Luke’s has completely flipped that around and I would actually wake up excited to go to school. Being there has changed my entire outlook on high school.

“It is very small, but everyone is super nice. It’s probably the best people I’ve been around in all of my years of school together. It’s a very close family at St. Luke’s and it’s very nice to be in that atmosphere.”

The same holds true for the relationship between students and teachers.

“I’m a little bit sad to be leaving. I wish I would have found it for my Grade 10 year as well,” she said. “But I’m excited for what’s going to come next.”

The future holds a move south of the border for Downey to pursue her passion of working around horses with plans to attend the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School, either in the fall or beginning of 2021.

“I wanted something in the horse-field because that’s what I’m most interested in,” she said. “And with shoeing horses and doing corrective trimming it can really help horses that struggle with staying sound and not sore and I really want to be able to help them out that way.”

Helping people is what fellow graduate Jessika de Bakker plans to do by staying a little closer to home, at least to start out with.

The Okotokian has charted a clear path towards her career goals, starting with undergraduate studies in criminal justice at Mount Royal University before heading east to the University of Ottawa’s law school to ultimately work as a criminal defence lawyer.

“I’ve been doing legal studies online with my school and just doing all of those assignments has made me want to deal with that kind of stuff,” she said. “And with some of the experiences I’ve seen from previous people that I’ve hung out with I want to be a lawyer to help people in a way.”

Not surprising given how much the school has helped her.

de Bakker has attended the outreach centre for the duration of her high school years.

“Under the circumstances I was in that was the only school I was able to attend,” she said. “It was better for my mental health, I couldn’t go to a bigger school because there were so many kids there and I was getting bullied so bad. Then I went to St. Luke’s, and St. Luke’s is a work-at-your-own pace kind of thing.

“There wasn’t as much pressure on me to get school work done as it was in a public school. It was just way easier.”

The school has made a profound impact on her relationship with learning.

“I did Grade 10 and 11 in the same year and I’m graduating one year earlier,” de Bakker said. “At first I started pretty slow, but once I started to get more school work on my hands I got a little stressed at first and they just told me to work at my own pace and so I did them at my own pace until they were done.”

de Bakker credited the St. Luke’s faculty for her development, highlighting principal Leslie Woehleke and English teacher Jodi Parks, in particular.

“(Jodi) taught me to take more responsibility when it comes to doing school work,” she said. “(Leslie) she’s helped me with everything, she helped me with school, she helped with issues that were going on outside of school. She made me feel better in general.

“I’m going to miss them a lot and miss going to that school. But they’ve made sure that I’m able to make a good living when I leave St. Luke’s. They’ve helped me figure out how to pay for (university) and they’ve helped me get all my schoolwork done and find out all the courses I need.”

St. Luke’s has made a lasting change on how Downey views education and learning as well.

Downey credited all of the excellent staff at St. Luke’s for helping her educational journey, noting Val McLellan’s work in teaching that went beyond the science textbooks.

“She’s really helped a lot,” Downey said. “Not only with my school work, but a lot of personal issues that I had, she was always there and helping me get through that. She’s pretty special to me.”

Not having the same individual interaction since mid-March in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge with mixed results for those involved.

Though de Bakker is graduating early, the pandemic has impacted her timeline on when she will commence her post-secondary education.

“It was harder doing school work at home than it was doing school work at school,” she said. “I am planning on going on to university and there might be a delay now because I have to do a couple more Grade 12 classes.”

The virtual studies for de Bakker took place using Google’s canvas platform, where students access online courses. For English and social studies, de Bakker has been doing most of the work through email correspondence.

“It’s just easier for me to get taught in a classroom, where if I have any questions the teacher can explain to me what to do step by step,” she said. “I can’t get that (interaction) when I’m doing online.”

Downey echoed the sentiment, adding it’s not been the easiest transition to online learning.

“My math and bio classes are all online anyway, but I was still there in class, so that hasn’t changed too much,” she said. “But it has been a little weird not having my teachers here with me because they really help a lot so it hasn’t been a drastic change, but it definitely has affected me a little bit.

“It’s hard to stay on track sometimes, but for my Grade 9 I did a lot of online schooling so I’m a little more accustomed to it.

“It’s definitely not been easy. This year I was really looking forward to as my last year of high school, but with COVID hitting everything kind of got tossed to the gutter and I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do this year.”

Some of those missed opportunities include getting a chance to compete in the Alberta High School Rodeo circuit and Foothills Cowboys Association and jackpot events for Downey, an accomplished barrel racer who also has a background in show jumping.

“Seeing as (events) aren’t going on, I’m not training as hard, but I do still try and get all of my horses in shape,” Downey said. “I’m actually breeding one of my good mares this year to have a baby next year.”

Balancing schoolwork and the rigours of competing in rodeo is partly what brought the now 17-year-old to St. Luke’s in her Grade 11 year.

“Their schedule made it able for me to be out on the rodeo road and also be able to attend classes – they had everything customized,” Downey said. “And that school is so special, everyone there is so welcoming and they try and make everything customized to you and what you need instead of the traditional schools that kind of have the baseline there.”

In lieu of a formal grad ceremony, St. Luke’s teachers paid a visit to Downey’s home to have a small cap and gown ceremony in early June.

“It’s a really nice thing that they’re doing and makes it a little easier this year,” she said. “It’s kind of a coming of age thing when you graduate, celebrating the 12 years that I’ve put in so not having that (formal grad) was a bit of a downer, but it’s super nice they’ve come up with a way to make it a little bit better.

“I like to believe that everything happens for a reason and I’m definitely disappointed that (the pandemic) had to happen this year seeing that I had a lot of my own plans this year, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I know a lot of people are struggling more, but for me I try and take it with a grain of salt and just make the best of what I can.”

Remy Greer

About the Author: Remy Greer

Remy Greer is the assistant editor and sports reporter for and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact [email protected]
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