United Way–funded neighbourhood houses build strong communities across Metro Vancouver

Tammy Ho faced an uphill battle to succeed in life. Yet today, she's a vibrant, optimistic UBC student who's helping refugees learn English

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      It’s fair to say that Vancouver resident Tammy Ho didn't grow up with many advantages in life. Now 22 years old, the East Vancouver resident was raised by a single mom who came to Canada as a Vietnamese refugee. Her mother was part of a massive exodus of so-called boat people from South Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of whom later settled in this country with only a smattering of English-language skills upon their arrival.

      In an interview in a meeting room at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, funded by United Way of the Lower Mainland, Ho recalls spending large amounts of time growing up on her own. She expresses great sympathy for her mother, who had to spend so much time working, mostly in restaurants, to support her and her older brother Tony.

      But it was never easy for the family. That's because her mom also had to squeeze in time to learn English at Vancouver Community College when Ho was quite young, often leaving her in the care of her brother.

      "I would usually just see my mom in the morning 'cause she used to drop me off at school," Ho says. "We would eat dinner together, and then she would take a nap because she would have to go to work later."

      For 80 years, the United Way of the Lower Mainland has been supporting neighbourhood houses across the region. Last year, the registered charity invested $2 million in this area to help families reach their potential and, in some cases, move out of poverty.

      "We believe in the value neighbourhood houses  bring to our community," the United Way's director of social impact, Kim Winchell, tells the Straight by phone. "They're responding to emerging community needs. They are an essential low-barrier welcoming environment for families, children, and seniors."

      Ho faced an uphill battle to succeed in life. Yet today, she's a vibrant, optimistic student at UBC with a dream of becoming an English-as-an-additional-language teacher. She's also volunteering to help Syrian teenagers learn English in a program offered at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, which is on the corner of East Broadway and Prince Albert Street.

      "That has been a really good opportunity, as someone who is working toward my career goal as an English-language teacher," Ho says. "I definitely had to start at the very bottom, teaching them how to say the alphabet, all the phonetics, and of course, teaching them greetings like 'hello'. I would use a lot of hand gestures, and then they'll teach me how to speak in Arabic as well."

      The United Way's director of social impact, Kim Winchell, says neighbourhood houses respond to community needs by providing a low-barrier welcoming environment for families, children, and seniors.

      Neighbourhood house promotes friendships

      In many respects, Ho has come full circle. As a child and teenager, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House was her lifeline, keeping her grounded, connecting her with others, and engaging her with the community. She attended the pre-teen and teen program, often hanging out there after school with her friends and mentors.

      She remembers getting help with her homework at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House. She also learned how to cook dinner there. She says as a member of the teen program, she would sometimes go on little excursions, like to the nearby bowling alley on Commercial Drive or on camping trips. In addition, she would volunteer at events organized by the neighbourhood house, such as the fall harvest festival.

      "We started doing car washes, selling Krispy Kreme donuts on the street—those sort of things—to fundraise to go on small trips," she recalls. "Our biggest trip that I can remember was going to Disneyland. That was really fun."

      The Lower Mainland's 14 neighbourhood houses enable the United Way to respond nimbly to emerging community needs, such as the challenge of integrating Syrian refugees. The Association of Neighoburhood Houses of B.C. defines these sites as a welcoming place where everyone of all ages, nationalities, and abilities “can attend, participate, belong, lead and learn through programs, services and community building”.

      "Our overall vision is a healthy, caring, inclusive community for all," Winchell explains. "And our mission really is to strengthen communities' capacity to address these social issues.

      "We really believe that strong communities nurture people; they help people connect to the supports they need; they build neighbourhood and community engagement and help promote safety," she continues. "That is, almost verbatim, the mission of the neighbourhood houses and the association of neighbourhood houses."

      Ho praises one program for helping her family through one especially dire situation when she was in its preteen program. At the time, the kids were in the midst of a fundraising drive to pay for a trip. But Ho’s world was turned upside down when a tenant set her family's house on fire.

      That’s when her friends at the neighbourhood house came to the rescue.

      "Everyone in the program decided to donate that money that they had fundraised to support my family afterward because we lost most of our items in the home," Ho says. "It was a very touching moment."

      She notes that the neighbourhood house also equipped her with the necessary skills to find her first paid employment as teenager working in a clothing store. She says that her volunteer work in the neighbourhood house's programs taught her to learn how to handle cash, be approachable, and offer exceptional customer service.

      "I would say that definitely helped me stand out among the other teens that were trying to find a job at the mall," she says.

      In addition, Ho has interacted with people from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds through her volunteer work. She feels this has made her more open-minded.

      "I get to engage with all the people participating in multicultural events here," she says. "So I get to try different foods and talk to people and learn about their cultures and their way of life."

      Long before the Syrian refugee crisis, Canada and other countries stepped up to help the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
      USS Blue Ridge

      United Way provides more than funding

      Jocyelyne Hamel is the executive director of Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, which has about 35 full-time-equivalent staff members and 300 volunteers working out of a two-and-a-half storey building. She tells the Straight that neighbourhood houses are really focused on "helping people help themselves" through various programs or by volunteering.

      It comes in a variety of ways, whether it’s through a seniors’ dance class, cooking clubs, immigrant-settlement services, childcare, or intergenerational activities that bring the elderly and young people together. She insists that Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House is not just a service-delivery partner; rather, it’s embedded in the community bringing people together to look at how to improve their neighbourhood.

      "People can link into a way they can actually test out new skills, test out leadership skills, develop a little project or run a program," Hamel says. "It's not just the service delivery; it's about that capacity building."

      Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House was completed in 1994 and according to Hamel, it's become such a busy hub that there will soon be a need for more space.

      She praised the United Way for connecting the neighbourhood house staff with an architectural firm, Perkins + Will, which is doing pro bono work to help come up with a new vision for the future.

      "There are peak times when people are struggling to even find a meeting space," Hamel says. "There's going to definitely need to be a larger space and more services that we can respond to.”

      Not only is there a large immigrant community, but there are also many indigenous people living in the area. “I don't think the fact that we have such a high aboriginal population in Mount Pleasant will change because of the existing housing stock that's here for First Nations people."

      Hamel cites the referral to an architectural firm as just one example of how the neighbourhood house's partnership with the United Way goes far beyond just providing core funding.

      "We're very aligned with the same kind of goals," she says. "We're really working together to try to achieve common outcomes to help our communities. They also provide us with some support with research."

      For Ho, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House has provided her with a refuge, an education, a means to find work, financial relief during a family crisis, new insights into cooking, and an important connection to the community.

      These are just a few of the reasons why she feels at ease whenever she enters the building.

      "I feel very, very comfortable and at home," Ho says. "I'll have my priorities and worries, but they're definitely pushed back in my mind here. That’s because I feel I can relax here and enjoy the people who are here—whoever they are—and just engage in conversation and talk to them. And give my time if I volunteer, of course!"

      United Way of the Lower Mainland helps build strong communities where people feel connected and supported. If readers want to support the United Way of the Lower Mainland, they can give at www.uwlm.ca/give. For more information on running a workplace fundraising campaign, email or call Mahin Rashid (mahinr@uwlm.ca or 604-294-8929, ext. 2451).