For Community Health and Well-being Week, we’re shining a spotlight on our partnership with Ottawa’s Catholic Centre for Immigrants, where we spoke with Anneke van Nooten, Client Support Services Program Coordinator.
Since 2010, Anneke has been working with CCI to match volunteers with Government-Assisted Refugees. When Together Project approached CCI with an opportunity to become partners, she built on their existing matching program to refer refugees to our Welcome Group Program.
With her warmth and enthusiasm for community health, Anneke reflects on winter challenges for Ottawa newcomers, the impact of meaningful connections, and how volunteers and refugees can help each other to create a healthier community for everyone.
Earlier this month, Anneke went to the funeral of one of CCI’s longest-standing volunteers. “He was 86 years old, and while it was sad, it was also very beautiful because I was there with four of his matches,” she said.
“This was a volunteer who had been matched many times. He was in his seventies when he started volunteering with newcomers, and he made such a difference in so many lives. He was really loved by the newcomers he worked with.”
Anneke found out about his death because one of the matches called her after they hadn’t heard from him for two weeks.
“It turned out he’d been in hospital,” she said. “They’d been keeping in touch with him during the lockdown, and then dropping food off at his house, and then keeping in contact with him at the retirement home, and when they couldn’t reach him anymore, they knew something was wrong.”
At the funeral, his family reminisced that the volunteer had an affinity for teaching newcomers conversational English, and would often refer to his matches as his students.
But his son noted that since his father was having them over at his house to share birthday cake and beer, that meant that they weren’t students any longer— they had become friends.
For Anneke, the strong bond between this volunteer and his new friends is indicative of healthy community well-being.
“Having the connections to people who are checking in with you, addressing both physical health and mental health, having people in the community who care— that’s something that’s important to remember in Together Project,” she said.
“It’s not just about how much the newcomer receives from the volunteer, but also how much the volunteer receives from the newcomers. It’s making a difference on both sides.”
For Anneke, community health means knowing which services are available, knowing how to access them, and how to contribute to society.
“It means that if someone needs interpretation, they can access it; it means feeling like you’re part of a community and that you have some input into what can help,” she said.
“For many newcomers, what’s important to them health-wise might be different from a mainstream Canadian, and they should feel that their voice is heard.”
After working with newcomers for many years, Anneke notes that along with accessing medical interpreters and finding culturally-sensitive mental health supports, one of the biggest obstacles to community health is navigating the Canadian medical system.
“Newcomers are often surprised at how long they have to wait for an appointment— six months for a specialist, for example,” she said.
“And then they might miss that appointment because they show up late, not only because they didn’t realize the importance of punctuality, but because they face challenges with being punctual, like navigating the transit system or accessing childcare,” she said.
“People might have to take one child for a specialist appointment, but then they also have to bring all of the kids along without having anybody they can leave the kids with in the waiting room.”
She said that volunteers can help by keeping children occupied in the doctor’s office, preparing them for appointments ahead of time, and helping refugees see the bigger picture.
“People can be focused on one issue, but having someone else they trust that they can talk about who can say, ‘This issue is important, but the other issues are linked, too’— that helps them to name their issues so they can get the right support.”
Anneke has also seen that adjusting to Ottawa winters can be hard on newcomers’ health and well-being.
“For people to say that they don’t go out after dark– well, in Ottawa, winter days are short, so if you don’t go out in the dark, you’ll have less time to get things done,” she said.
“Also, people can be afraid of the cold, so you want them to understand the importance of dressing properly, and that they won’t get a cold or a flu just by stepping outside.”
To help newcomers adjust to winter, CCI refers clients to The Snowsuit Fund, which allows children aged 15 and under to have a new snowsuit and boots for ten dollars.
CCI also has a Skating Buddy program where volunteers teach skating lessons at the Ottawa City Hall ice rink. “We get donated skates, and they take them on a rink that is well-groomed, with boards to hang onto,” she said.
Anneke encourages volunteer groups to be role models for healthy living during the winter.
“In Ottawa, the snow can be extremely beautiful: you can go tobogganing, have snowball fights, go snowshoeing, make snowmen,” she said. “You don’t always get winter lovers, but volunteers can help people realize that if they’re properly dressed, they can have fun in the snow.”
After years of working with volunteers, Anneke often reminds volunteers that their contributions can make a long-lasting impact.
“It doesn’t happen right away,” she said. “You can be helping someone with their language, and one year later, their English is still minimal, and you’ll feel like you haven’t done anything.”
However, the very act of committing to help is meaningful to newcomers.
“The impact of the commitment is huge— particularly for somebody who’s coming as a refugee, who had to leave their country, whose government wasn’t supporting them, whose family wasn’t supporting them— something went wrong for them,” she said.
“So when a complete stranger makes a commitment and they stick by it, that means something.”
After Together Project reached out to create a partnership with CCI, Anneke has seen the reciprocity of relationships in the Welcome Group Program.
“One of the great things about Together Project is that it gives the newcomer a chance to be in a relationship where they’re not just the recipient, but they’re also giving,” she said.
“Because with staff like caseworkers, settlement workers, and medical personnel, it’s much more one-way, where the staff offer services. But so many newcomers want the opportunity to give back and show that they’re not just people who are taking, but that they have something to share.”
Anneke has seen the Welcome Group Program give refugees a chance to contribute to community health and well-being.
“They can share their food, their culture, their family love, their kids who are happy to see new people. It’s healthy for people to be able to show their strengths and contribute to their community; it can be very rewarding.”
As the Welcome Group Program grows in Ottawa, Anneke is seeking new volunteers.
“Most of our volunteers are in their 30s and 40s, and they’re people who want to help newcomers because they know firsthand how hard it is and they want to give back and pay it forward, or they’re people who are aware of the struggles that refugees have gone through because of the news,” Anneke said.
“We’re especially in need of volunteers who speak different languages, like Swahili, Dari, Pashto, or Amharic. That can be inspiring for newcomers when they realize the diversity of Ottawa.”
But most of all, Anneke is seeking volunteers who are excited to connect.
“People who are ready to meet in-person, who are ready to introduce their love of winter to newcomers, who are ready to share and ready to learn— it would be wonderful to have them on board as volunteers,” she said.
“We want people who can give newcomers hope, because that’s an essential ingredient for starting a new life— hope that things will get better, hope that you can build a home, hope that you can belong.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria