“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,” said Christopher Robin.
Turning the page on a Winnie the Pooh picture book with eight sets of eyes staring at her in wonder, Ornela Kljakic knew she had made the right decision to volunteer with Frontier College.
What started as a simple desire to get involved with the community and give back, has transpired into eight years of dedicated voluntarism and numerous roles with the organization. Today, while pursuing her PhD, Kljakic is the Club President at the London branch of Frontier College.
In early 2020, the passionate educator was recognized for her commitment to the community and for valuing social responsibility with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers from the Governor General of Canada.
“Working with Frontier College has been a wonderful experience and I’m pleased to accept the award and for the organization to receive recognition for the work they are doing across Canada,” Kljakic said.
Founded in 1899, Frontier College has been delivering literacy programs to children and adults across Canada.
Kljakic emphasizes the important work that Frontier College does. About one in five Canadians have very low proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in a technology rich environment.
“Frontier College helped more than 32,000 learners across the country last year, and when monetized, it is estimated that more than $1 million in volunteer time is given to the organization in a year,” she explained.
Growing up, Kljakic says she was obsessed with learning about how things work. She would make up experiments and test her own hypotheses while playing with her toys. Inspired and encouraged to pursue science by her mother who was an aircraft engineer, Kljakic came to Western University as part of the Scholars Electives Program. From her first year in the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program, Kljakic was working in the lab and soon fell in love with research.
She’s now putting the finishing touches on her PhD research and thesis, which is focused on behavioural and cognitive neuroscience.
While she’s been fine-tuning her research skills in the lab, she has been strengthening her teaching skills with Frontier College and falling in love with education.
Ornela Kljakic, PhD Candidate, Anatomy and Cell Biology
That passion has grown through the many roles she’s held at Frontier College.
In addition to leading reading circles and doing literacy-based crafts with young children, her work with the organization has taken her to Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) to work alongside youth who were preparing for their General Education Diploma (GED).
“Every time I would arrive at YOU, I was inspired by the people who were there; they are so resilient. They value education and want to improve their lives. They really motivated me. It’s why I wanted to volunteer there for so long,” she said.
Within eight months, Kljakic was promoted to Program Leader at YOU and acted as a liaison between community partners and the London branch for Frontier College. The role offered up new leadership responsibilities including recruiting, training and overseeing volunteers, as well as completing quantitative and qualitative analysis on the programs being offered.
“After serving in that role, I wanted to take one last step and become the Club President,” Kljakic said enthusiastically.
For the past three years, she has been working as President in collaboration with a regional coordinator to oversee all the programs offered by the London branch of Frontier College. She is also responsible for volunteer recruitment and management and oversees the executive.
Kljakic says that the past nine years of her life have been transformative.
“Western has become my home. I’ve grown as an individual and I’ve improved my leadership and communication skills. Because of my volunteer work, I’ve learned to be patient, flexible and to always take it one step at a time.”
She’s been able to apply all of these lessons to her role as a mentor and teaching assistant. She’s also used these skills in her volunteer roles with Let’s Talk Science; Strong Bones, Strong Minds, Strong Muscles; and the Inspiring Young Diversity in STEM research conference.
Nine years ago, Kljakic wanted to find a way to make a small difference in her community. During that time, her passion for education and her enthusiasm for voluntarism has grown, and thousands in the community have benefited from her commitment to social responsibility.