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


New Circles' GLOW clothing service is the largest clothing bank in Toronto. We help 12,000 people of all ages annually.