On Ouchs, owner of The Rice Box and a Thailand refugee camp survivor talks to staff and students at Vernon’s Mission Hill Elementary after being inducted into the school’s hall of fame. (Mission Hill School photo)

Vernon school hall calls Ouchs

Vernon businessman On Ouchs inducted into Mission Hill Elementary Hall of Fame

CHAD SOON

For The Morning Star

Twenty-eight years ago, Vernon’s Mission Hill Elementary welcomed a new Grade 1 student named On Ouchs. He spoke no English. The little boy was in culture shock.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Ouchs’ childhood had consisted of foraging for fruit or anything else he could possibly sell. He put in long days of child labour under an unforgiving sun to help support his family of six. No school or playtime for him. Barely subsisting, Ouchs and his family endured years of squalor and deprivation in the camp’s chicken coop conditions.

Ouchs’ parents, Ath and Loeung, had narrowly escaped the killing fields of Cambodia in 1979. Ath’s flight over the border had been especially harrowing. Breaking out of a Khmer Rouge concentration camp, he had snuck through jungles and minefields and over mountains for three months while on the verge of starvation.

A family without a country, the Ouchses applied for sanctuary in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.K., and the United States. Each time they were denied. Only Canada saw value in the uneducated but resilient, hard-working, and devoted family. Finally, after nearly a decade in a refugee camp, the Ouchses found a home in Vernon.

A team of local volunteers came together to help the family “settle and learn the language and ways of Canada,” recalls their sponsoring agent, Arne Sahlen. The new residents would not be dependent for long. With Ath working in sawmills and Loeung employed in restaurants, the Ouchses were able to buy their own house within a few years.

While Ouchs was now free to be a kid, he had new challenges to face.

“It was a struggle,” he remembers. “We were seen as different.” Bit by bit Ouchs built up his English language skills at school while absorbing the jabs and taunts of bullies.

He focused on his studies, and with some encouragement, he began to believe he had something to offer his community and the world.

“My Grade 6/7 teacher, Mr. Phillips, really pushed me to do what I do today,” said Ouchs, owner/operator of the popular Vernon eatery The Rice Box.

In 2010 Ouchs started the Wokathon fundraiser “as a way for me to remind me and my family where we came from, and a way for us to give back to the community.”

Eight Wokathons later, the Ouchs family has raised more than $75,000 for Vernon’s hospital, the Cambodia Support Group, and the NONA Child Development Centre, which helps more than 700 children with special needs each year.

Some of those are Mission Hill kids. The elementary school is also made up of many immigrants and ELL learners as well as recent refugees from Syria and Myanmar. The school’s pride in diversity is reflected in its multicultural mural, painted by Vernon artist Michelle Loughery in 2004, many years after Ouchs left.

On May 14, Ouchs returned and was escorted to the gymnasium by an admiring group of Grade 5/6 students. Their class had voted to induct the Ouchs family into the Mission Hill Hall of Fame.

The shrine’s mission is to recognize “shining examples in our community: people who develop their abilities to help society…people who advance values that are important to us all, like fairness, respect, perseverance, and cooperation.”

Reflects Sahlen: “This family is way up on top of a wonderful heap of people in terms of their dedication and caring and love for people and eagerness to help both at home and around the world.”

“We are happy to welcome the Ouchs family to our assembly today,” announced Grade 6 student Cadence Ritums.

Student leaders Sakshat Pokhriyal, Devon Stoddard, Harley Taylor, and Jasmin Zelaya took turns recounting the Ouchs’ uplifting story to the assembled students and staff.

“The Ouchs family survived war, forced labour, hunger, and many years of desperation in a refugee camp,” Joban Panag, 11, reiterated. “We are glad that Canada gave them a new life here.”

Continued 10-year-old Tajveer Mann: “Through hard work, they have become model citizens with great community spirit, showing how new Canadians can make our country a better place.”

With that, the Ouchses joined a distinguished list of Vernonites — Larry Kwong, Loughery, Sonja Gaudet, and Josh Dueck — in the Mission Hill Hall of Fame.

On Ouchs accepted a plaque designed by Blair Peden, and his thoughts turned back to Grade 1. The feelings of being picked on as a kid don’t leave. But Ouchs is glad to see how some perceptions have changed. He shared how a few of his grade-school tormentors have since approached him to apologize and offer congratulations on his success in business and philanthropy.

To the hundreds gathered in the gym, Ouchs called for more kindness. Addressing his first school, he was struck again by gratitude.

“Vernon changed a family’s life forever, and our family will never forget that,” said Ouchs. For the Mission Hill community, it was a powerful lesson in citizenship.

Inspired by the Ouchses, Grade 5 students Victoria Rush and Harley Taylor raised $37 for NONA with a lemonade stand. They and their classmates then held a Bakeathon on May 16, which brought in $380 for NONA and the Cambodia Support Group.

“Super amazing,” applauded Ouchs. “You guys are so awesome.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Students at Vernon’s Mission Hill Elementary School inducted former student On Ouchs (back) into the school’s hall of fame. (Mission Hill School photo)

Just Posted

Vernon's 28 Street will be closed between 41 and 39 Avenues from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Black Press file photo)
Detour in effect on 31st Street in Vernon

Motorists to face small detour to avoid sanitary line work

Area resident Shandel Dyck submitted a photo of a police situation in a mobile home park in Lumby Oct. 26, 2020. She said she saw officers with their guns drawn as they surrounded a suspect unit. (Shandel Dyck - Contributed)
UPDATE: Neighbouring weapons threat puts Lumby school on lock down

Further details released on morning excitement near elementary school

More than 6,000 people attended the popular Downtown Vernon Association summer concert series known as Civic Sounds. (Peter Solymosi)
Vernon organization requests $20K to bring back park-based fun

Downtown Vernon Association seeks funding for 2021 programming

Comedian Mike Delamont will take the stage at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre for two socially-distanced shows Nov. 14 at 5:40 and 8 p.m. (Contributed)
Comedy returns to Vernon’s stage amid COVID-19

Cabaret-style shows let audience in on the live action once again

The 100 Radon Test Kit Challenge targets municipalities across Canada where radon testing has been limited, but where there is a potential for homes to have elevated radon levels. Vernon is participating. (Image contributed)
Vernon takes on Radon Challenge

200 free radon testing kits are up for grabs as part of the third annual challenge to test for gas

FILE – Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province during a press conference in the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. shatters COVID-19 records with 817 weekend cases; masks now expected indoors

Three people have died over the past three reporting periods

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Kelowna Secondary School. (SD23 photo)
Second case of COVID-19 confirmed at Kelowna Secondary School

Interior Health has confirmed the new case is unrelated to the one announced Sunday

The Stuart Park ice rink in January 2020. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Popular Kelowna outdoor ice rink will open amid COVID-19 pandemic

City council approved COVID-related changes to the Stuart Park ice rink’s operations

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Interior Health sees 31 new cases of COVID-19 over record-breaking weekend

Eighty-six cases remain active and one person is hospitalized with the virus

Salmon Arm RCMP responded to a seven-vehicle chain reaction collision early Monday morning, Oct. 26. (File photo)
One person injured in seven-vehicle chain-reaction collision in Salmon Arm

Snow packed to ice, speed contributing factors behind collisions

RCMP responded to a single-vehicle collision on Highway 1 east of Salmon Arm early Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (File photo)
Salmon Arm man killed in collision on Highway 1

RCMP say slippery road conditions contributing factor behind collision

Jordan Naterer, 25, was last seen Saturday Oct. 10. He planned a hike in the Manning Park area, and has not been seen since. Photo Facebook.
Parents not giving up, after official search for Manning Park hiker suspended again

‘We are determined, but eventually the money is going to run out.’

Most Read