Combermere native teaching Abu Dhabi’s children

COMBERMERE – A woman from small-town Combermere is teaching some of Abu Dhabi’s wealthiest children, including one from a royal family.  
Born in Barry’s Bay and raised in Combermere, Donna Maika never thought she would call anywhere else home. She grew up on Annie Mayhew Road in Combermere with her parents Basil and Lorraine Maika and sisters Becky (now Mask) and Shelley Maika. 
“I would never trade the opportunity I had to grow up in Combermere with anything,” Donna said speaking from her home in Abu Dhabi. “Living in Combermere was something I definitely took for granted when I was younger, but now that I’m living an ocean away, it really puts the gift of that community in perspective for me.”  
Some of her cherished memories include jumping off the bridge into the Madawaska River in Combermere, riding her bike into town to get ice cream from “Pete’s,” going to the C.O. Blitz and entering the bathtub races.
“Combermere, like many small towns, offers its residents something special. You know the people in your church. You know the people you see in the grocery store and post office. You know the coaches and umpires. You know everyone. But most importantly, you know that each and every one of them would be there for you at the drop of a hat – to help, to support and to inspire,” she said. 
Donna attended Palmer Rapids Public School from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 5, then George Vanier Catholic School in Combermere for the remainder of Grade 5 to Grade 8. She moved on to Madawaska Valley District High School (MVDHS) where she took an extra year for Grade 13. 
Her favourite subject was music. Even in elementary school, she always looked forward to the MVDHS concert and stage band visit, including the “big personality” of music teacher Mark Robbins, who remains the music teacher at MVDHS today. 
Determined to become part of the music program when she entered high school, she became a trumpet player and member of the junior band. 
Donna, 31, said she went on to be a member of every band, some small ensembles and was a “fierce and loyal” student to Robbins when she graduated in 2001. 
In fact, Robbins is the reason why she wanted to become a teacher in the first place. 
“Mark will never be ‘just’ a teacher. He is an entertainer. He is a counsellor. He was, is, and will continue to be a father to us all,” Donna explained. “His name couldn’t possibly be more apt since he humbly leaves an indelible ‘mark’ on every life he touches.”
She admitted that even though she has had countless teachers in her life, it was Mark who changed the meaning of teacher for her. 
“The way he taught, his passion, his dedication and his obvious care for his students made my high school experience irreplaceable,” she gushed.  
When she was not attending high school, she worked for her aunt, Judy Maika, owner and operator of the Inn Towne Restaurant in Combermere. Donna waitressed there for four years before taking a job with Annice and Gord Pratt of the Ash Grove Inn in the spring and summer before leaving for university. 
The customers were always memorable, especially one in particular, Donna explained.
One Sunday morning, a man walked in to the Ash Grove where Donna was working. He was disappointed he could not order off the regular breakfast menu and made some impolite comments. When he complained that he did not have a spoon for his coffee, Donna decided to do something about it.
She returned to the kitchen and made it her mission to find the largest spoon possible. She returned with one that could not possibly fit in his coffee mug. 
“Not only did he apologize for his impolite behaviour, but he also went on to express his delight with my rebuke and promised that if I was working, he would never allow another waitress to serve him,” she laughed. “I saw him many times that summer and every time after that fateful morning, he greeted me by  the nickname, Spoon Girl, and with a smile, and a big tip.”
That eccentric personality has continued attracting unique people into Donna’s life and has led her to some unexpected places along the way. 
After graduating from Queen’s University in Kingston in 2006, she went on to complete her Masters degree in education from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia in 2008.
During her time at university, she met Karim Abdelsalam, whom she has been with for 12 years and is now engaged to.
Donna admitted that she thought she would end up teaching in the Renfrew County District School Board, but then changed her mind and thought she would prefer working in Southern Ontario. But jobs were few and far between.
See more in the October 2, 2013 issue of The Valley Gazette.