The Current24:27This Ontario mother graduated in her late son’s place, and other graduation stories
Shortly before Ben Algar died of cancer in 2021, he had a request for his mother: to finish the carpentry program he had enrolled in at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont.
“He just knew I needed a focus, and so I wasn’t going to say no,” Danita Algar told The Current‘s Matt Galloway. “There wasn’t a lot that he asked from us, so yeah, I just decided that I would have to do it.”
On June 15, Algar made his wish come true. She accepted the diploma from the school’s principal and dedicated it to her late son.
Algar spoke to Galloway about the graduation and the obstacles she overcame to get there. Here’s part of their conversation.
How did you end up in this carpentry program?
[Ben] was registered to start in 2019. He became ill in October, just after he started in September, and he was diagnosed with cancer. We were in contact with the college, and at that time, they deferred him for a year so that he could finish his treatments.
Unfortunately, his treatments were not successful and just before he passed — he passed in July — it was mid-June on Father’s Day that his instructor came over from the college and … he said to Ben, “I’m praying for a miracle for you and I want to see an Algar in the front row come fall.”
After that conversation, Ben said, “Well, I’m hoping for a miracle as well. But if it doesn’t come, I’m going to send my mom in my place.”
A week after Ben passed, the college called me and they told me that everything was arranged. They had held Ben’s spot so that I could start.
He sounds like quite a young man.
He’sa tremendous young man. I think everybody likes to say that about their children, but I often think now how forward-thinking he was, because I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have a focus.
Durham College was very supportive of me. They were there for me every step of the way, encouraging me, recognizing days that were maybe a little bit tougher. So he put me in the right spot.
His first year at that college, the year before he had registered for the carpentry program, he had taken trade fundamentals.
In high school, he enjoyed some tech classes and building the projects that they made there. And then continuing that into the trade fundamentals program, it touched on many of the different traits that are available, and he decided on carpentry.
One of the things that he would have liked to have done when he finished was to travel with us to New Brunswick. We have property there and he was going to help us build our retirement home.
You’ve said that this saved your life in some ways.
I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been at school.
You know, there’s days when you don’t want to get out of bed and there’s days when you are angry and hurt and upset that your child’s not doing this and you’re there carrying on.
I just think had I not had it, I don’t know how I would have gotten through.
When you were in that class … were there days where you doubted what you were doing and why you were there?
For sure, starting out in the very first week.
I was coming from being a staying-at-home mom who’d never been on a Zoom call, and suddenly I’m thrown into online classes and terminology of things that I hadn’t really been familiar with.
I wanted to be in that top position and to be able to say to Ben, ‘I gave it everything I had.’– Danita Algar
The first week I remember my daughter was at university, and I called her and I said, I don’t know what I’m doing. I was crying. I was so stressed out … and she talked me through it.
But there was also days that were in the shop … just little things would come up that I thought Ben should be here, Ben should be been doing this. Math classes, for example. He was really strong in math and some of the early days of the math courses, I just questioned everything and thought, “I have no business being here.”
The other thing was trying to keep up with the young people. I was determined to not show my age to its full extent. But they accepted me into their group and it made things a little bit easier.
So you certainly belonged there and you certainly figured things out because at the end of this, you graduated top of the class.
Early on I struggled a little bit just with online learning and getting back into school mode. But it became more familiar and I think by midterm of the first term in the first year, I said, “I actually can do this and I have an affinity for it. I have an interest in it.”
By second year, knowing that I had come in close to the top in that year, I put a push on to really do well. I wanted to be in that top position and to be able to say to Ben, “I gave it everything I had.”
WATCH: The moment Danita Algar accepted her diploma
Danita Algar lost her son to cancer in 2021. One of his last requests was for his mother to take his place in the carpentry program at Durham College. Yesterday, Algar walked across the stage as the program’s top student, kissing her diploma and pointing to the sky in an emotional moment.
When you walked across that stage at graduation and they handed you that diploma, what did you do?
I think I first thanked the principal of the school who gave it to me. I gave it a kiss and I lifted it up to Ben, and continued across the stage.
That was a bittersweet moment.… I mean, I’m surrounded by thousands, hundreds maybe, of other students who also worked hard for it and got to that point.
So I was trying to be cognizant of I’m just one of these other people, at the same time as trying to take it in as I did this for you, Ben, and I hope you’re proud.
What are you going to do with the skills that you have gathered now? I mean, the property in New Brunswick is looming, right? You going to build something there?
I’ve been down to the property earlier, once school was done. I went down and cleared some [of the] area.
Another thing that Ben had asked for was for us to clear a little spot on the property for him. He had wanted to be able to move there as well, and work from there.
So we have the beginning of a memorial garden started, and I’m heading back down later this summer to build a little bunkie that will be Ben’s place.