Helen Pena and her husband, Pio Pena, have had to stay in Canada for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period of time, they went from service users of the Community Engagement and Family Support (CEFS) Centre to volunteers, participating in many activities and enriching their lives in lockdown.
The Markham-based CEFS Centre aims to improve quality of life through all kinds of settlement, community and family services.
As immigrants from the Philippines, Helen and Pio became permanent residents of Canada a long time ago but had often traveled back and forth between the two countries, and they’ve never stayed in Canada for more than six months before.
In the early days of the pandemic, the couple joined the computer class and other classes for seniors provided by CEFS Centre virtually. “It was so helpful,” Helen said, crediting the lessons with helping her adjust well to the confusion at the beginning of isolation.
“I have a brand new and better understanding of inclusiveness in Canada through this experience,” Helen said. Back in Manila, she had never been part of such a support group; however, in Canada, her second home, she said she received selfless help from many people. Now volunteering and helping others, she said the most wonderful part is the feeling of being needed.
As they watched case counts rise, Helen an Pio believed it was the time to give back, so they applied to become volunteers for CEFS Centre. At the age of 76, Pio got his driver’s licence so he could help deliver supplies such as masks and food baskets to the vulnerable.
The couple has five children and 13 grandchildren. “I know it’s a big family,” Helen said, “but we are not living together; some remains in Philippine, some lives in other countries. People at our ages are easily to get lonely.”
Pio said those virtual courses they took through Zoom and other online gatherings were like torches, lighting up the lockdown days and driving away the smog of the pandemic.
Min Shi is also a volunteer at the CEFS Centre. The 78-year-old immigrated from mainland China and joined the group as a senior ESL learner and later became a volunteer as well.
“The pandemic moved everything online, and I couldn’t do anything at first,” Shi said. Although there were community services available to her, she was unable access them because she could not read English.
Classes such as ESL for seniors, calligraphy and iPad and smartphone training not only taught Shi how to place orders with her phone, but also helped her make a lot of friends through the internet and offline they go grocery shopping together.
Since becoming a volunteer for the CEFS Centre, she has been doing everything she could, such as delivering flower and vegetable seeds and doing data for an essay contest. “Having something to do every day makes me feel useful and needed, which is terrific,” Shi added.
On Oct. 17, CEFS Centre held a harvest festival and recognized volunteers who had made outstanding contributions during the pandemic.
Susan Li, president of the centre, said she was touched by the enthusiastic participation and dedication of the volunteers.
Besides serving the seniors, the centre’s programs also benefit women and children. Candy Liu is a volunteer instructor for a nutritional cooking workshop for new moms that runs on a weekly basis. She joined CEFS Centre at the suggestion of her mother, who is a loyal member of the centre.
The centre's math and French classes help parents with after-school tutoring, and it also gives Grade 11 student Vicky Wen a chance to directly connect with people.
“I love to teach math,” said Wen. “I used to teach grades 1 and 2. Now, I teach grades 5 and 6 at CEFS Centre.” Math can be boring, but Wen felt that going through homework with students and explaining formulas repeatedly were good reminders for her own mathematics knowledge.
Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun