The Language of Volunteering: Bridge, Bond, Build

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By Ellen McLaren

Photos: Noriko Nasu-Tidball & courtesy of the SWIS program  


(From Left), Ginny Gin (Parent Project Adviser from Shaughnessy Elementary), Janet Cheng (Settlement Worker of VSB SWISS Program), Keiko Honda (Editor-in-Chief), Iris Wei ( Newcomer Youth Ambassador), Ellen McLaren (Staff Writer)

School is hard and, adds Janet Chung, it’s even harder when nothing is in your native language. The difficulties that students face are made that much more apparent when paired with language barriers. As a representative of VSB SWIS Program Byng Project 3B (Settlement Workers In Schools) in Lord Byng Secondary, Janet is one of the many Vancouver Settlement Workers  committed to overcoming these challenges and integrating new immigrant families into their Canadian schools and communities.

I first met Janet at the Kerrisdale Community Center’s Cherry Blossom Festival, and have since had the chance to talk with her several times about Project 3B (short for Bridge, Bond, and Build), a school-based integration program founded in 2008. In a quick overview, she explained that each year, 3B develops a specific aim for the program. In past years, these have been mainly community oriented, working mostly within Vancouver. However, as 3B has now expanded beyond 200 registered members, in 2015, Janet raised the stakes, partnering with UNICEF Newcomer Youth Ambassador Project: fundraiser for School In a Box Program (a.k.a., School in a Box).  School in a Box operates on the idea that schooling should remain as consistent as possible in crisis-struck areas; each box costs $240 to fund, and can provide support to up to forty students. Since this January, Janet and the students and parents of Project 3B have been throwing a variety of events and engaging in different communities to raise money for this program, and are currently at a whopping $10,000. In the process of doing so, Project 3B students and their parents, many of them only recently arrived in Canada, have not only tackled the issue of providing education to children in need but have also demonstrated astounding generosity with their time and effort, giving back to a community that many are still not entirely comfortable calling their own.



There were enough volunteers for the School in a Box fundraising effort to form nine groups of students, most from Lord Byng, but some heralding from other schools as well. Meeting with each group, I was struck by just how young some of these students were (the youngest, in grade seven) and how their maturity levels varied so dramatically. Many still didn’t have a firm grasp on timely email responses, and during interviews, a few played on their phones, giggling amongst themselves. Nothing out of the ordinary, of course – just kids being kids.

But these kids have enormous aspirations. In some ways, this made them seem younger still, idealism bordering on naiveté; however, they also spoke with exceptional self awareness, a deep understanding of their place in life and the potential that they have for growth. Being cognizant of this, Janet made sure that every group had a mix of the contemplative and the creative, each student motivated in his or her own right. Janet also ensured that groups varied in size and approach: the All Star Basketball team members organized a competition/performance based event, while the sole Theory in Action coordinator taught music theory and donated his earnings; Young Entrepreneurs, Art for a Purpose, and Blossoms of Love all sold their products (schools supplies, handmade crafts and baked goods) at strategically placed stands; Lunch in a Box and the David Thompson Lunar New Year groups planned around their peers’ lunchtime appetites with cafeteria based stalls; the CECC (Chinese English Conversation Club) used games and presentations to introduce students to the idea of volunteering; and the Love Thy Neighbors team reached out to both Chinese and Indian communities, spreading information and throwing a large event with the TaiZhou Friendship Society. Each team played to its members’ strengths and interests while serving as a platform for students to explore areas of improvement. And, Janet is sure to add, “These students are lucky to have such dedicated parents,” stressing the importance of parental involvement in each project. Helping make the flowers for Blossoms of Love, preparing the meals offered at the All Star Basketball matches, and driving from restaurants to schools to churches to festivals, the strong parent presence helped ensure that everything went as smoothly as possible.


2 vai compOf course, regardless of their parents’ and Janet’s encouragement, as with most large endeavors, there were plenty of snags along the way. Some of them were more project specific – Timmy Wang (of Theory in Action), for instance, did not have to worry about people stealing bubble tea, and Andy Han (Lunch in a Box) didn’t need to make comprehensive lesson plans for a student new to music theory. Many of the difficulties, however, reached across the board. For most, this was the first time they had to write a formal project proposal, organize an event, or coordinate a large group of student volunteers. Effective advertising was a common issue, as it became apparent that social media wasn’t enough if none of the friends you’d reached out to wanted to buy a flower or a cell phone case or a lunch box. There was also a general consensus that just being students exacerbated every other problem, as the constant flow of tests and homework made each obstacle that much higher. Stressed and overworked, Helen and Nancy (Arts for a Purpose) said that at one point, they just wanted to stop.

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They went on, however, to add that “But we promised to finish the project, so we just kept going.” Ultimately, they were glad they did, agreeing that they felt that much more accomplished for not quitting. This speaks to many of the groups’ mentalities: though the School in a Box fundraising presented many hurdles, every team concluded that they’d participate again if given the opportunity. “Every single kid has grown enormously,” Janet asserted, drawing my attention again to the magnitude of their task. Not only were they learning to balance extracurriculars with school work, but their projects demanded a strong sense of reliability, cooperation, and budgeting of time and money, all while in a relatively new social and linguistic environment. George, a parent, succinctly identified the areas in which Janet and Project 3B best encouraged development: “Skills, English, and confidence.” After speaking with every group, it became clear just how key confidence really is, and how well Janet encourages it within each student. Janet is endlessly proud of their fundraising achievements, but she beams even more when recalling a student’s individual growth. Whether a disorganized kid getting her act together or a humble teenager not realizing the significance of his contributions, Janet has each student’s back every step of the way, as she’s certain that they’re up to the challenge.


_03A5435Talking with the students and parents, it’s evident that Janet has truly been bridging, bonding, and building. This element of community engagement is the capstone of the School in a Box project and of Project 3B itself. Yes, the fundraising aspect is impressive, and yes, the skills that each student hones are vital, but ultimately, it’s the interconnectedness that Project 3B fosters that makes these results and experiences as meaningful as they are. For immigrant families, one of the most fundamental needs after moving to a new environment is establishing a sense of belonging. This can also be one of the most difficult things to achieve, especially when paired with an abrupt switch in languages, which very much hinders anyone’s self confidence. What Project 3B does is acknowledge these obstacles as understandable and legitimate, and then provides the means to start overcoming them, all with the added bonus of engaging in humanitarian pursuits. The challenges of immigrating still exist, of course, and even if a community is developed among members of Project 3B, there’s still the issue of then engaging with non-immigrant families on that same, impactful level. However, Project 3B equips its members with the skills and opportunities for students and parents to take further steps on their own while remaining present as an organization of friendship and support.


So sure, school is hard. Every student knows it, every parent know it, and Janet definitely knows it. But it’s also exceptionally important. Which is why everyone who participated in Project 3B’s School in a Box fundraiser – volunteers, teachers, customers alike – is as invested as they are, giving a helping hand to other communities that can then continue their own bridging, bonding, and building.



Adam Liu, Peter Wang, Sean Xie, Jessica Fan, Cynthia Shen won the Top UNICEF-Newcomer-Youth-Ambassador-Project-Top-Fundraiser-Award by collaborating with UBC CF Basketball Club in the All-Star-Basketball-Fun

Brian He (left) and Vinci Chen (middle) found the winning formula in helping newcomers improve their English and at the same time fundraising for UNICEF-School-In-A-Box



Handmade flowers and homemade cookies and cakes by Yuki Chen (left), Shirley and Winnie were the signature products offered by the Blossoms of Love.


Project Love Thy Neighbour reached out to TaiZhou Friedship Society of Canada to appeal to community leaders for support


The Indian Cultural Centre of Canada opened their doors and their hearts to welcome the Love Thy Neighbour Newcomer Youth Ambassadors to their community to fundraise for UNICEF School-In-A-Box


The-Lunch-In-A-Box team believed targeting consumer demand was the key to success


Timmy Wang put Theory-Into-Action by donating his hard earned wages from teaching music theory to UNICEF