Helen Henley stays active and involved in her community as a volunteer for the Campbell River Multicultural and Immigrant Services Association (MISA) and other non-profits like the Salvation Army. Born in the Philippines, Helen immigrated to Canada in 1967, first settling in Port Arthur, Ontario.
Q. It can be challenging for new immigrants to settle in smaller communities, which typically have less cultural diversity and fewer services than larger urban centres. What drew you to settle in Port Arthur?
A. My husband Cecil drew me to Port Arthur. We met in the Philippines, and we were pen-pals for years before he asked me to come to Canada and marry him.
Immigrating to Canada was a great adventure for me, but of course there were challenges. There were no settlement supports then, no ESL [English as a Second Language] classes, none of that. I was lucky, I already spoke English. But I came from the tropics; in Port Arthur, I understood for the first time what it was to be cold. They had a saying there: “We have six months of winter and six months of poor skiing.”
There were five other Filipinas in Port Arthur. I knew them, but because I worked in a bank, and they were all nurses, I was never really part of their group. Cooking was another challenge: I couldn’t find the ingredients I was used to, except for bean sprouts, which I’d buy from a Chinese restaurant. I had to learn to cook all over again, with ingredients that were foreign to me.
We lived all over Ontario, but when we retired, we wanted somewhere new to live that would meet both our needs. We chose Campbell River, because here Cecil can fish all year round. And it appealed to me because I began my life on an island in the Pacific, and now I’m living on an island in the Pacific once more.
Q. In August, you helped out with Campbell River’s first Diversity Health Fair, which focused on physical and emotional well-being. How do you take care of your own health and well-being, and how has this changed as you’ve grown older?
A. When you’re retired, you have to work harder to keep your mind and body active and engaged. I read, keep up with the news, do Sudoku, and use my skills when I volunteer. I do tai chi, and go to the gym when I can. Also, we have a dog, and he takes me for walks!
Cecil and I run a bed and breakfast, so we meet people from all over the world, and that opens our horizons. I have a good life, and I remind myself to be thankful for that.
Q. You spent three years on the Board of MISA, including one year as president. Has your experience as an immigrant affected the kinds of volunteer work you take on?
A. When I was still working, I volunteered as a “Big Sister,” and we hosted ESL students. My “Little Sister” and some of our students have been like part of our family, and we’ve stayed in touch with many of them over the years.
Volunteering helps me live my life with purpose and passion. Now that I’m retired, I look for meaningful volunteer work to challenge me and fill my time – things that speak to my heart, like volunteering with the Salvation Army, where I’ve helped with the Hot Meal Program every Thursday for the past three years; things that speak to my mind, like sitting on a Board; and I’ll step in where I see a need. I helped raise money for Japan after the tsunami, and I recently organized and obtained a grant for a subsidized food safe class for volunteers.
My own life experience does affect how I volunteer. I am grateful to live in Canada; I don’t think I could have found a better life anywhere else. I am valued and accepted, and volunteering is one way that I can say “thank you.”