The school year is coming to an end and with that comes the graduation of another class at Selkirk Secondary School.
Selkirk’s Class of 2019 will not only see the graduation of Kimberley locals, but also three students who are part of the Rocky Mountain International Student Program (RMISP), Thomas Lee, Joe Lee and Akira Okamura.
The program is host to hundreds of international students every year. Students from around the world study in Grades 8 through 12 in Kimberley, Invermere, Revelstoke, Cranbrook, Fernie and Sparwood through RMISP.
This year, there were 45 to 50 students enrolled in Kimberley, some of which stayed for one semester, while others have received their entire high school education at Selkirk.
Host families are vital to the program, and some families host international students for many years. Locals Doris and Tony Panylyk are no exception.
Dennis, Thomas and Joe Lee have all lived with the Panylyk family for the past several years. Hailing from Taipei, Taiwan, Dennis is the eldest of the three, while Thomas and Joe are twins. Thomas and Joe have been part of the program for six years now.
Dennis graduated in 2016 and is now approaching his last year in the Business Administration program at the University of Kelowna. He still visits the Panylyk family, often staying with them during the summer months or at Christmas time.
A tragic accident left the boys without a mother when they were very young. Their father, Jim Lee, heard about the RMISP program and enrolled the boys. When they first arrived at the Panylyk’s, they had very little experience speaking English. Now, all three of them are fluent.
The Panylyk’s say that this will be their last full-time home stay, mostly because “it’s so hard to say goodbye”.
“You have to do it with an open heart and lots of love, it’s about being kind in our culture,” said Doris. “It’s been a rewarding journey…It’s hard to find a home for three brothers, but we wanted to keep the family together so we made it happen. We’re bonded for life.”
Doris and Tony are both retired and consider all three boys to be members of their family. They say it will be very hard to see them off.
“They call me their Canadian father,” said Tony, while scrolling through photos of past Father’s day cards from the boys. “Anything that we do, we all do it together.”
He adds that he and Doris have shown Dennis, Thomas and Joe the way of life for many who live in the Kootenays, from hunting and fishing to camping, cooking and hobbies like mechanics.
“The boys have always got right into any activity I’ve shown them. They’ve been hunting, and well, they will help me process the deer. They love to make sausage.
“They’ve been quadding with us, they really love that, and it was quite the experience when we went ice fishing. The idea of standing on the frozen lake; they were tentative, scared, until I showed them how thick the ice was.”
Not only have the three boys been immersed in Kootenay culture, but Tony has also been a part of the automotive class at Selkirk where the twins have learned the ins and outs of mechanics.
“I’ve got a shop outside that is fairly well equipped, so the boys would always be out there with me helping out with oil changes or tire changes that I’d be doing for friends. Thomas really loved that.”
Tony serves as a mentor for the boys and other students, by volunteering at the automotive class three days per week.
“This year they [Thomas and Joe] had a double block of automotive class, so I was looking for a project vehicle to work on. A friend who is a retired teacher had this old Jeep that she gave to us, and it’s been their project vehicle at the high school. It’s worked out well, I’ve been able to help out with the boys and their friends and coach them along.”
Now that the Jeep is in tip-top shape, says Tony, he is going to give it to Thomas and Joe as a graduation present.
The boy’s father Jim says he is grateful to have been able to share the experience of raising his sons.
“It is a good environment, I am lucky enough to have Tony and Doris to look after the boys. For the past few months the real mother and father have been Tony and Doris,” said Jim.
Dennis agreed saying, “I love this family and this place, everything we did here will be so good to remember. I hope to still visit them in the future.”
Before the Panylyk’s see the boys off, they will celebrate at their favourite restaurant, The Butterfly Garden, with a private party filled with friends, family, teachers and staff from Selkirk, and most of the RMISP staff.
“The boys are all so smart in their own ways, we know they will do well in anything they do,” said Doris, adding that Thomas will be enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering program in Kelowna while Joe is an aspiring Automotive Technician, and will be studying at the College of the Rockies.
When asked what his advice would be for someone who hopes to apply as a homestay family, Tony said it’s not about the money.
“If you’re doing it just for the money, don’t do it. I wouldn’t recommend it. You want to do it because of the experience, the shared culture. All of the money that [we receive] from RMISP gets spent directly on the boys, whether it’s coats and winter boots or food – they eat a lot of food,” laughed Tony.
“I call them ‘My Three Sons’, like the T.V. show,” Doris said, laughing as well. “It’s an experience we’ll always remember. They will be in our hearts forever. It’s truly been an honour.”