It has been 30 years since a compassionate group of community members started Central Alberta Refugee Effort in Red Deer.
In 1979, the community was seeing an influx of Indo-Chinese people, fleeing Vietnam by boat and in need of aid.
Red Deer resident Dot Towns was involved with helping the families as a founding member of CARE and the Sunnybrook United Church Refugee Committee.
“I was born and raised on a farm in Saskatchewan,” Towns said. “Our whole neighbourhood depended on each other.”
She said it was natural for her and others to offer the same kind of help to newcomers.
When Towns lived in a house with her late husband Les they would often park their vehicle on the curb and use their double garage as a depot for donations of used furniture and other items for refugees and immigrants to Red Deer. She would show newcomers how to use an electric stove or a freezer and help them adapt ethnic recipes. She and her husband would provide rides to immigrants so they could go to language classes or medical appointments. Now in a condominium, Towns remains on the lookout for useful items for those in need and helps however she can.
“I always say I do it for myself because it makes me so happy,” said Towns, now 85.
CARE started after the Red Deer Ministerial Association asked for assistance to help refugees settle. A small group gathered in 1979 at the invitation of Salvation Army Lieut. Hewitt to hear a man with Calgary’s Someone Cares immigrant program speak at Red Deer College. Shortly after, Central Alberta Relief Effort for Sponsorship was born. The group would eventually become CARE.
CARE’s first office opened in 1980 at 4912 Ross St. and it was about the size of a kitchen, with a couple of staff members. The organization has grown to have more than 30 staff members, including ESL teachers and program co-ordinators and is located at 202, 5000 Gaetz Ave. Many of the staff members are immigrants.
Elzbieta Sawicka has been with CARE since 1997 and is the host program co-ordinator, helping connect immigrant and refugee families with Canadian volunteer hosts.
Sawicka said the interaction between volunteers and new immigrants and refugees can make a big difference. It can be as simple as a volunteer host teaching a newcomer how to cook or eat vegetables and fruit that is new to them or explaining new phrases and expressions. At other times, she said it can mean a volunteer telling a new family about holidays like Thanksgiving or Halloween and showing them how to celebrate those special days.
Sawicka came to Canada from Poland in 1990 and was a client of CARE when she first arrived. Now she is happy to be able to help others the way she was once helped herself. She said both CARE staff and volunteers have a passion for helping and making a difference.
CARE has helped thousands of refugees and immigrants since its inception, with 300 to 400 newcomers on average helped each year.
CARE offers a volunteer host program to connect new immigrants with Canadian hosts, settlement support in schools and an interpreter program with people who are able to speak more than 50 languages. Rural community and public awareness programs offer workshops to workplaces, agencies and community groups on issues of cultural awareness and sensitivity and an immigrant seniors program and youth program offer social activities.