Father Saji Thomas is returning to his roots this week at La Grande Middle School.
Thomas, who served as an educator in India for a decade before moving to La Grande in 2015, is helping to oversee the start of a new three-year program for LMS students designed to help them develop greater feelings of self-worth, learn how to set goals, form values and much more.
The program is named DREAMS, and it is off to a promising start this week. A total of 23 children, all weeks away from entering sixth grade, are attending a five-day kickoff camp for DREAMS, which stands for Desire, Readiness, Empowerment, Action, Mastery and Success. The program was brought to La Grande by Thomas, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church. Thomas said he wanted DREAMS started in La Grande because he saw how successful it has been in other communities in the United States and in India.
Thomas is enjoying the opportunity to again work with children as an educator.
“I like teaching children and helping them grow,” he said.
Thomas is not only advising students, but also giving them the opportunity to instruct him. For example, one student, Ella Ganung, taught him a card game during a break Thursday.
Thomas was a principal in India a total of 10 years before coming to La Grande. His last five years in India were spent as principal of a large school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the city of Bangalore.
He learned about the DREAMS program through one of its primary founders, Father Lijo Thomas of India, who is also a Catholic priest. (Lijo and Saji are not related.) Lijo Thomas developed the curriculum for the program as part of the thesis he wrote for a doctorate in education degree he earned from the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Lijo Thomas was instrumental in bringing DREAMS to La Grande, Saji Thomas said, along with people including Al Adelsberger, a La Grande businessman. The La Grande School District, which is not affiliated with DREAMS, has also helped by providing space for program sessions.
Saji Thomas is one of the 12 mentors the La Grande DREAMS program has. The mentors are a mix of community members, Eastern Oregon University students and La Grande High School seniors. After this week’s five-day camp ends, the mentors will meet with the DREAMS students every three months for a day to advise them and see how they are doing. The mentors will also meet with the DREAMS students at five-day camps in 2020 and 2021.
Sophia Madsen, one of the mentors, is looking forward to the follow-up sessions.
“I’m excited about seeing them grow and keeping up with them,” she said.
Goal setting was a topic addressed extensively at Wednesday’s camp session. Students wrote down goals on slips of paper that were then placed in balloons. After the balloons were inflated, the children each randomly grabbed a balloon, popped it and read aloud the goal written inside. The campers were encouraged to be open-minded and respect the goals of others. This is a theme integral to DREAMS.
“We are always emphasizing the importance of being kind and compassionate,” said Zee Koza, a DREAMS mentor.
Guest speakers at this week’s camp included La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey, who spoke Thursday. Harvey told the students of the importance of developing a value system. He encouraged the students to set high goals and standards for themselves. He said those who make these decisions for themselves have a better chance of being successful in life than those who let others do it for them.
Harvey also discussed the virtue of being selfless. He said he has met thousands of people during his life and has known people who seem to have everything in terms of material possessions but they are not happy.
“They do not know the joy of giving to others,” Harvey said. “You can be just a consumer or someone who helps others.”
Thomas said he has been delighted with how the children have responded to talks like the one Harvey gave. He also has been encouraged to see how much more outgoing the students have become since camp started Monday.
“They are now confident and smiling,” he said.
These children will be facing a big transition later this month as they move from grade school to La Grande Middle School.
“They will be entering a much bigger world. We want to give them the skills and confidence they need to head into this new world,” Koza said.