Ivon Kemper is no ordinary volunteer. She has lived around the world with her diplomat husband, and she brings a global perspective to volunteering at New Circles.
Olu's Story: "A day that changed my life"
Olu describes walking through the door at New Circles as “life changing.” She was, she says, overwhelmed “with joy; with happiness.” It had been a long road to the front door of New Circles.
Olu arrived in Canada from Nigeria, a refugee from domestic violence. She feared for her life, and for her son Olusegun, a toddler beset by cerebral palsy. His condition, she says, isolated her from the community around her.
There were no services to offer her help, and Olu fled to Canada, leaving her 19 month-old daughter Favour with her sister. She arrived in Toronto with Olusegun (now six years old) and pregnant with her son Joseph (now two, born in a shelter upon arrival). Her husband remained in Nigeria.
Finally, Olu was granted refugee status and set about beginning a new life. Was she homesick? She was not. The cold meant nothing to her, given that, finally, she and her little boy were safe. But she had very little. She had brought with them only a few pieces of clothing, insufficient for our climate.
But chance intervened. On an errand to buy clothing at Value Village, Olu struck up a conversation with a woman who knew of New Circles. New Circles, she told Olu, gave clothing to refugees for free.
On her first visit, Olu took home her allotted 20 items per family member – and this was a day that changed her life. Her children were warm at last and able to dress in keeping with the new culture around them. The clothing helped them fit in – so crucial, especially for children.
The new clothes were, for Olu, transformative as well. Suddenly she found she was regaining her confidence. Leaving her tattered clothing behind, she began to find the person that she used to be. “This is you?” she would ask herself. “Still a woman?”
GLOW was the first step, but New Circles had more to offer. Olu signed up for the Retail Foundations program, learning the skills needed for entry-level employment. After graduating from the program, Olu attended a job fair and was hired by Lowes, for whom she now works as a cashier.
Olu has a message to all of those who fund New Circles and volunteer: you might not see first-hand the difference you make, but you are changing lives. New Circles was Olu’s stepping stone to a new life. It remains, she says, her “backbone.” She now volunteers at New Circles, and says she always will.
And recently, Olu, Olusegun and Joseph were joined by Favour, now four years old – where Olu is confident they will all be safe.
Story by Barbara Nichol
Photo by Donna Griffith Photography
Ivon's Story: No Ordinary Volunteer
Ivon Kemper is no ordinary volunteer. She has lived around the world with her diplomat husband (Consul General of the Netherlands) and she brings a global perspective to volunteering at New Circles.
Ivon arrived in Toronto in August 2013 and by September she was at New Circles. She made the connection through the Toronto Newcomers Club, an organization that offers those who are new to the city a chance to discover their surroundings, build friendships, and take part in a wide range of activities. She thought New Circles was a perfect fit because she, too, was a newcomer.
As a diplomat, she is not allowed to work, so wherever she travels with her husband, she looks for the other side of society. She explains that “having the life of a diplomat is parties and meeting important people. But that’s just a bubble and there is always another side of this bubble. For me here in Toronto, that’s New Circles and newcomers.”
With her European background and global perspective, Ivon thinks the Canadian system for refugees is very difficult, with many obstacles in their path. Time-limited sponsorship agreements, poor housing and lack of education and retraining opportunities means many immigrants live in poverty. She believes the government should do more but recognizes the important role that New Circles plays in helping newcomers.
Ivon volunteers two days a week. She is in GLOW every Tuesday and at least one other day a week. A self-starter, Ivon does whatever needs to be done In GLOW, from sorting and restocking, to helping clients, and working at check-out. In addition to GLOW, she picks up donations, works on the Holiday Angel program, and helps with fundraising.
Connecting with the clients and feeling that she is doing something meaningful are among the key reasons Ivon volunteers at New Circles. She also likes the flexibility, friendliness, and open welcome the volunteers receive, as well as the many good volunteers she has met.
But working in GLOW and meeting with clients and hearing their stories is what keeps her here. “Even after almost four years, when I leave the building I still feel that I accomplished something,” she says.
She recalls the story of one young boy that deeply touched her as a mother. An eight year-old boy was at GLOW with his family and all he wanted was a pair of soccer shoes. He loved soccer and had never owned a pair of soccer shoes. The moment he said it, she thought about her own boys (now aged 22 and 24 and in university in the Netherlands).
“When they are eight or nine years old, their feet are growing. Every three months you have to go to the sports store to buy them new soccer shoes. And that is when I realized that for me, I didn’t have to think about it. I go to the sports store. Oh, this is a new brand, a new colour. Ok, go for it. And this boy loved soccer and never had soccer shoes.”
She looked around everywhere and opened every bag but there were no soccer shoes. She felt so terrible that she had to tell him, sorry, there are no soccer shoes.
Listening to clients’ stories has made Ivon truly grateful for her life and personal safety. Even though clients struggle with poverty and other obstacles, when she asks them if they are happy here, they say that they are safe and their children can go to school, which is something they didn’t have for many years.
Ivon says, “I’m privileged in that I have never lived in a war zone, so thinking about losing everything, your car, your home, whatever, that’s something we can’t imagine. But thinking about not feeling safe anymore? For me, that’s my life and I feel safe.”
She reflects that for New Circles clients, feeling safe is the most important thing – then after safety, they think about food and education and work. “And they are, one way or another, flexible, because they are happy to be here, to be safe. That’s good.”
And it’s good that New Circles can play a meaningful role in helping newcomers establish a new life in a safe and welcoming country.
Story by Ruth Lewkowicz
Photo by Donna Griffith Photography