When Marilou Lopes was working as a teacher in downtown Toronto, she was inspired by a volunteer who was helping newcomers with school enrolment. “I spoke to that volunteer and I thought, ‘More people should do this type of work— a little bit of effort on the volunteer’s part can be a life-changing event for a family who is already facing challenges.’”
And after she left teaching to enroll in law school, she decided to assemble a Welcome Group of four individuals to join her and her partner, Carlos. “When I was deciding to do this, I thought of all of the kind, caring people who live close to me that I could invite,” she said.
Marilou says that in the beginning, a few of the members were apprehensive about their capability to help.
“Three of us in the group, myself included, come from families of immigrants. We’re extra sympathetic to the immigrant experience, and that’s a huge reason why we chose to do this volunteer work,” she said.
“However, there were one or two members in the group who were feeling insecure about what they had to offer. They said, ‘I only speak one language, I don’t have any experience doing this type of work.’ But those same members who were feeling the most insecurity have been the biggest contributors. They have been so helpful, so resourceful.”
And while Welcome Groups are usually between three to five members, Marilou assembled a group of six— which worked perfectly when they were matched with a newcomer family of six.
“We all bring something different to the table,” she said. “So if the family approaches me with a question, I can tap someone else on the shoulder and they’ll step up, because you really can’t do this alone.”
For Marilou’s Welcome Group, one highlight has been interacting with the four children. “The kids are so social, well-rounded, polite, super smart and really driven,” she said.
When she spoke to their school principal to ask about learning grants, the principal was surprised. “He told me, ‘These kids are not on my radar— I never thought to offer them learning grants. They’re at the top of the class.’”
“Definitely, the kids are going to be alright,” she said. “I have no doubt that these kids will be successful at anything they do.”
And for one of the children, the group has given him a unique chance to pursue his interest in music with weekly recording sessions.
“Carlos happens to be a producer and music composer, and we have a home studio,” Marilou said. “And one of the children is very interested in rap, and he writes rhymes. You have to hear it— it’s so good. This fifteen-year-old kid now has professional recordings of his music. And when you listen to his music, his lyrics, they are so moving– I cried the first time I heard it. It’s his way of processing everything he and his family has been through. One day, he even brought his siblings to sing back-up.”
The group members, who also include a keyboardist and a video producer, are happy to encourage his passion.
“Two of the members in our group are musicians, and they were feeling a little like, ‘I don’t have a background in education or social work or whatever, but it’s worked out so well,” she said. “We had no idea this would happen.”
Another highlight has been helping the newcomer mother find meaningful employment.
“She met up weekly with one of our members for career counseling, resume and interview skills,” she said. “We were so happy to do it. It’s a responsibility when you see someone struggling to navigate their new home in Canada. You kind of have to step up.”
And over the summer, the group made it possible for the family to cycle, acquiring five bikes through social organizations and Kijiji.
“A couple in our group procured the bikes and got them into working condition, with locks and helmets,” she said. “These weren’t things that the family asked about— that was just the group members saying, ‘Look, this could be helpful, what do you think?”
And on Labour Day Weekend, they held a group meet-up at Leslie Spit to have a bike safety lesson.
“I love bike commuting. Biking is so beneficial for mental health, commuting, finances, and personal exercise,” Marilou said. “I hope they love bike riding, too!”
Since meeting the newcomer family four months ago, the group has already formed a tight bond.
“While we didn’t all know each other at first, now we have a real sense of camaraderie together,” she said. “I feel like we will just be friends with them forever.”
But Marilou is quick to note that with two months left in the match, there are still more needs for them to address.
“We’ve reached a lot of their goals, but not all of them,” she said. “I know they still want to create more community, meet more people, and hopefully, in the near future, we can get on that.”
Marilou is certain that potential volunteers who are thinking of reaching out to Together Project should not hesitate to apply.
When she reflects on her Welcome Group, the Margaret Mead quote comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
“If anyone truly has the desire to help and a little bit of time, that’s it,” she said. “It just takes some people who care to make a difference.”
Interview by Jennilee Austria