Two years ago, Paula Bocanegra Nieto was a second-year Political Science student at Glendon-York University, who was looking for a way to volunteer.
Together Project stood out because, as a former child refugee from Colombia, Paula knew how her parents could have benefited from a similar program.
Today, as a Cultural Ambassador and Welcome Group Volunteer, Paula talks about her lived refugee experience, shares an innovative online teaching strategy, and sets her sights on an impactful career.
Paula remembers living in a shelter with her family in Buffalo when she was ten years old.
“During the day, we would have education courses, but at other times, I just remember playing with kids my age and having fun,” she said.
But years later, after reflecting on those times with her mother, she realized that for adults, the experience was very different.
“My mom was so sad and impatient to leave,” she said. But upon coming to Canada, the hardships multiplied.
“Talking about it to her now, I see that there was a lot of change: a different country, a different language, going through the refugee process.”
This is what inspired Paula to volunteer with Together Project as both a Cultural Ambassador and Welcome Group Lead— to be the support that her parents didn’t have.
As a Cultural Ambassador, Paula acts as an interpreter between refugee households and Together Project staff by providing Spanish-language support. She introduces refugee newcomers to the program and checks in with them at the end of their match.
Even as a full-time student, the time commitment didn’t phase her. “There are high peaks and low peaks,” she said. “Often, it’s just 5-10 minutes long, and maybe twice a month.”
On top of being a Cultural Ambassador, Paula has used her Spanish skills as a Welcome Group volunteer, helping families to register their children in school, to connect with their lawyer, and to help them find daycare.
“When the match starts, they tell us what their main goals are, like English practice, homework help, and computer literacy,” Paula said.
In her experience, the Welcome Group divided the tasks, with each volunteer spending one hour a week helping the children or parents to reach their goals. And once a month, the whole Welcome Group met with the family online to check in.
In one of her matches, Paula was helping the children with remote language support, but she found it challenging to keep them engaged.
“It’s a little difficult for kids between four and seven years old to do homework and to keep them online,” she said.
Paula remembered that as a child, she was able to adapt quickly to Canadian life by having friends and going to school, and empathized with how hard it was for newcomer children to adapt during a pandemic.
This drove her to find a creative solution to keep the children interested during their weekly English tutoring sessions.
“They would lose interest with reading and repeating words to me online,” she said. “So one day, I had an idea and said, ‘Let’s draw!’”
Using Zoom’s shared-screen whiteboard, she wrote English words and asked the girls to draw the objects. Her strategy worked.
“I was so proud because prior to that, I was really struggling to maintain their engagement. They weren’t looking forward to our calls, and I could sense that,” she said.
“And I said no, I want this to be fun, because I know as a child, it’s frustrating. So being able to make it fun for them, to make it exciting, and to hear them ask, ‘Can you stay on the phone a little longer?’ That was a huge success.”
As a Cultural Ambassador and Welcome Group volunteer, Paula knows that getting a hold of a family and coordinating them can often be challenging.
“If they’re a parent, they’re most likely studying English, working, and taking care of their kids,” she said.
She advises new volunteers to stay patient.
“Because the family’s goals are not something you can reach right away, like English practice, it’s something that requires time, and sometimes you might not see the results right away. That’s why patience is key: patience with yourself, and with the family or individual, too.”
When asked to reflect on her Welcome Group volunteer experience, Paula thought of the impact of being empathetic.
“As a volunteer, you may not have experience as a refugee, but having empathy with a family who is new to a country, to a culture, that’s a good start,” she said. “And for action— the action is about being part of an organization like Together Project!”
Paula encourages volunteers to see that even assisting for a short period can be impactful. “Sometimes, it’s literally translating for fifteen minutes—you can do it,” she said. “Even if you have full-time work or school, it’s a small piece of time with a big impact.”
Paula has recently finished her classes in Political Science at Glendon-York University, and her experience with Together Project has inspired her to pursue a career in the settlement sector.
As Paula begins working with a local non-profits in the Greater Toronto Area, with her personal experience as a refugee, her innovative solutions for engaging youth, and her passion for assisting newcomers, Paula Bocanegra Nieto will bring so much to her new job engaging newcomer families and youth.
Interview by Jennilee Austria