Embracing the Opportunity to Dream

Posted On Wednesday July 24, 2019
Liam’s family gathers outside Durham College to celebrate his graduation at the Centre for Success Completion Ceremony on June 20th. L-R: Craig Bonikowsky, Faith Bonikowsky, Katie Bonikowsky, King Whitney, Eileen Whitney, Liam Bonikowsky, Mardy Bonikowsky, and Dan Bonikowsky

By Marissa Campbell & Sarah Racioppa

Anticipation hummed in the air, feeding the excitement of grads and family and friends alike. Chatter flitted from chair to bleachers like song birds calling from treetops, the steady cacophony only broken by staccato laughter and squeals of greeting and excitement.

Liam sat in the centre of the throng, beaming, flanked by his classmates, each student having taken their own journey, fighting their own way upstream against a tide that at times threatened to drag them under. But they’d made it. They’d dared to dream and today they celebrated their success and the tremendous opportunities that lay ahead. Pride lifted their grins as they listened intently, waiting with restless legs for their names to be called.

For Liam’s parents, as the ceremony progressed, hands fussed with hems or hair, hearts beat faster and chests leaned a little closer, necks craning to finally see their son walk across the floor to accept his diploma. Sweat mingled with cologne and perfume as years of anxiety and worry melted away, relaxing shoulders and hearts made weary from carrying the burden of wanting only the best for your child.

It had been a long journey, one filled with sleepless nights and anxious days, but today, Liam would graduate on time and with honours. For Liam’s parents, it was a dream come true.


Liam Bonikowsky had always been a bright, happy and engaged student. In his free time, he enjoyed family game night, playing video games with his little sister Faith, and reading.

All of that changed during Grade 10. “I started getting a lot of anxiety, and I just couldn’t do anything anymore,” explains Liam.

He could no longer comfortably walk the halls of his high school, raise his hand to answer questions in class, or participate in group activities without feeling anxious.

“Most of my anxiety came from people. I had trouble finding support because I couldn’t even bring myself to look for it.”

Liam began to feel as though he was drowning in a deep, dark pit of anxiety. He became disengaged from everyone and everything.

For Liam’s parents, Katie and Craig, it was a helpless feeling as they watched their son slowly withdraw into a walled-off world, removed from friends and school, retreating into a haze of online computer games and social isolation. It was a battle to get Liam to school, he was depressed and disconnected. They tried therapy, they tried the guidance counsellor, and then Liam enrolled in the Supervised Alternative Learning (SAL) program through his high school.

With SAL, Liam tried to refocus on his school career, but the disconnect was taking its toll. Liam didn’t fit in. He was unhappy and didn’t see any way out of the situation. Then he heard about the Centre for Success.

A Glimpse into a New Future

Katie recalls the moment her son walked into the Centre for Success classroom for the first time on a tour. “He walked in, tense, shoulders up and by the end of the visit, I watched the tension just go. There were a couple of kids in the program and they talked about how they didn’t really fit in at high school and how it was a struggle for them. One of the young men, who was in the program at that time, had worked hard to finish his credits and was graduating in December 2018. He spoke about his excitement to attend Durham College (DC) the following January. And in that moment, I could see Liam thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, maybe I do have some sort of future. Maybe I can figure this out.’ It was amazing to watch. He turned to me at that point and said, ‘I think I can do this.’”

The Durham District School Board (DDSB) Centre for Success is a dual-credit program offered in partnership with DC, at both the Oshawa and Whitby campuses. It’s designed to support and encourage Grade 12 students to not only complete high school credits, but to also achieve a college credit, and immerse themselves in a true college environment in anticipation of applying to post-secondary.

“It’s so encouraging to see students, who may not have felt a connection to their high school experience, develop an appreciation for their own potential,” says Darlene Dempsey, DDSB Centre for Success Teacher. “It’s remarkable to witness them make attainable and positive future plans.”

In January 2019, in his final Grade 12 semester, Liam left his high school to attend a class with 13 other students taught by Dempsey at DC’s south campus. “The program is great for kids like Liam who find mainstream high school isn’t the correct fit for them,” says Dempsey. “The smaller class sizes and access to college supports and facilities really worked for him.” Dempsey adds, the program helped foster strong relationships, “Liam made a lot of friends in the classroom. We were together every day. We became a family and we stuck together.”

The evidence of Liam’s new-found engagement in school was obvious. He flourished in his four high school courses, which included Navigating the Workplace, Healthy & Active Living, World History, and Studies in Literature. In his college course, HVAC Sheet Metal Fabrication, he finished with a 99 per cent average, and at the end of the semester, Liam’s overall average amounted to an impressive 88 per cent.

So, what did Liam like about the Centre for Success program? He lights up as he says, “The college environment is a lot more professional, which I really like. And I just enjoy being in the building. It doesn’t give me near as much anxiety as high school did.” Liam adds, “It’s changed me completely.”

On graduation day Dempsey left Liam with a few parting words saying, “I see a really strong and powerful man who is confident moving forward. Continue to be successful, keep that confidence, and follow your dreams.”

Katie, Liam’s mom agrees, “For better or for worse, high school is a difficult place to be — there are a lot of dynamics — but Liam didn’t feel that in the Centre for Success program. It was a fresh start. It was truly amazing because we never thought he would graduate on time, if at all.”

Daring to Dream

If they dared to dream about a high school diploma, their joy was doubled when a large envelope arrived addressed to Liam from DC. Katie muses, “He just turned to us and said one evening, ‘Oh, I applied for college today.’ And two weeks later he had an acceptance. Our heads were spinning. When the letter arrived, he wasn’t even home and it was killing us. It just sat there waiting. It was a big envelope so I knew it was a good sign, but the waiting was torture. He’s excited and nervous about going to college but he’s said so many times, ‘I love it there.’”

Liam chose the Recreation and Leisure Services program at DC, due partly to his rewarding experience planning events with the Gillie Beans Fund, an organization that fundraises for cancer research. “I just love doing that every year,” explains Liam. “So, I thought the Recreation and Leisure Services program was the perfect way for me to move forward.” A diploma in the program will allow Liam to plan, implement, and manage recreation programs for community members of all ages and abilities.


Liam’s family stepped outside the doors of DC, a soft breeze carrying the scent of blooming linden trees, lifting the hair from clammy necks and temples. After sitting in a college gymnasium for an hour and a half, the cool summer air felt like a refreshing dip in a deep crystal-clear lake.

Like a pride of lions, they sauntered across the parking lot to a strip of lush green grass that backed onto a quiet pond below. A parade of ducks, their gentle quacks raised in greeting, waded through the water behind them.

One by one, the family gathered, ready to document Liam’s graduation with a photo they could cherish forever. Each of them wore a contagious smile and radiated a blissful energy that affected everyone around them. The deep blues, pinks and soft pastels of their clothing blended together, creating the perfect backdrop to the brilliant white sheen of a certificate of graduation, the entire scene coalescing into a brilliant picture of radiant merriment.

As they readied themselves for the soft click of the camera, arms surrounding one another, the sun broke through a bank of grey clouds, lighting the stage for the finale. This would be a moment they’d never forget.


Liam’s father, Craig is profoundly grateful for the opportunities the Centre for Success has given Liam and the potential outcomes for his future success. “Our experience with the Centre for Success was overwhelming,” says Craig. “In Grade 10 he became very internalized and had a hard time — even at home where he was disconnecting — but once he was in the program, it was a matter of seeing your son come back and be himself again. He was remerging and shining and happy to go to school again. It gave him the opportunity to dream again.”

Katie adds, “In Liam’s words, the program was ‘life-changing.’”