Innovations in Integration Podcast

Transcript for Episode 3: Liana Honsinger - New Canadians Centre Peterborough

SpeakerSpeaker’s Words
LianaIt has been completely life-changing for many of them to work so closely with a new family that has faced trauma beyond imaginable and if they can bring even a slight sense of ease, relief, or comfort or confidence, that’s what keeps our volunteers going.
Tyler:Welcome to another episode of “Innovations in Integration”, a limited run podcast series produced by the Community Integration Network, an IRCC funded initiative of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. My name is Tyler Paziuk.

Ontario’s settlement and integration sector is absolutely brimming with interesting and creative people. And so, we wanted to speak with some of them to learn about the innovative projects and programs they’ve been working on. Whether you’ve been in the sector for a long time and are looking for some fresh inspiration, or you’re new and excited to learn, we hope you’ll find the series useful.

For this episode, I spoke with Liana Honsinger from the New Canadian Centre in Peterborough. Like many communities across Canada, Peterborough saw an encouraging swell of support in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. But how do you put all those volunteers to good use so their passion and expertise doesn’t go to waste? Well, that was Liana’s job. Let’s take a listen.

Liana Honsinger, thank you very much for joining me. The way I usually start these things is I just ask people to introduce themselves and introduce their agency. So, could you do that for us?
LianaHello. My name is Liana and I have been involved in coordinating volunteers for the New Canadian Centre for over four years. The New Canadian Centre is a non-profit organization in Peterborough, Ontario. And we provide services and programs to help newcomers, immigrants, and refugees settle in Peterborough, and our goal is to help them become active members of Canadian society and equal members of Canadian society.
Tyler:Hello. My name is Liana and I have been involved in coordinating volunteers for the New Canadian Centre for over four years. The New Canadian Centre is a non-profit organization in Peterborough, Ontario. And we provide services and programs to help newcomers, immigrants, and refugees settle in Peterborough, and our goal is to help them become active members of Canadian society and equal members of Canadian society.
LianaSo, to give you an idea, last year the New Canadian Centre had about 696 new clients from 103 different countries speaking about 52 different languages. So, as you can see our city is small, but it’s quite diverse and we really embrace it at the New Canadian Centre, as does the Peterborough community at large.
Tyler:Sorry, how big is Peterborough actually?
LianaAround 80,000 people.
Tyler:Okay, that’s good to know. All right. Well, what do you think, does it make sense for us to lay out the model you’ve established first and then talk about how you got there? Or do you want to just sort of tell the story start to finish, chronologically?
LianaWell, it all started back in fall 2015, when the Syrian refugee crisis was all over the news. Our organization held an information session, and that was in response the overwhelming number of inquiries from community members in Peterborough and the surrounding area. They wanted to see how they could help.

So, we set out about 50 chairs in the gym downstairs and we had 500 community members show up.
Tyler:That’s amazing.
LianaSo, we were just astounded by the outpour of understanding and caring people that stepped forward to offer anything and everything they really could. And from that day on, the New Canadian Centre has been buzzing.

In February of 2016, we became a designated Resettlement Assistance Program center, so we know that as an acronym, RAP and we were granted the ability to support the government in helping government assisted refugees come to Canada and resettle here in Peterborough and make Peterborough their new home.

So, basically, the government provides the financial assistance to the family, and of course, some funding for settlement workers at our center so that we can run the program.

All right. What is missing is really the help navigating the community, fitting in, building confidence. So, we knew we couldn’t do this alone. There was no way. And we had hundreds of community members who wanted to help. So, basically, we developed refugee support teams and that consists of about 5-10 volunteers with 1 volunteer team leader that help new refugee families overcome cultural and language barriers. They support them in becoming independent citizens who are confident in navigating their new community on their own.

So, the volunteers support one family throughout one year of resettlement. And that basically aligns with their government contract and their government finance, which is supporting them for one year. Really those volunteers help with informal English support, child minding, driving, healthcare appointments, housing, organizing family activities.

So, there are many different roles that they take part in. One of them would be learning how to use Canadian money. We all know that’s really confusing when you go to a new country. Where to buy used clothes, cheaper brands, introducing them to a Canadian holiday or a new tradition, showing families where the library is or the closest park or discount store.

So, really the simple things that we take for granted are the same things that make a world of difference to the refugees as they get started in their new life here.
Tyler:So, this sounds similar to sort of the private sponsorship model. Is this based on that somehow?
LianaI don’t know exactly where the idea came from. I think it’s probably a mix of the private sponsorship, the resources we had, and just the response we had from the community that wanted to help.

But I would say that it is fairly close to the private sponsorship model. The main difference and why so many people reach out is that it doesn’t involve the finance bit of it, which is difficult. So, not many groups are in the position to provide that financial support to get a family here, so this gives people without the financial ability to help out in the same way and not have that kind of burden. So, I think that’s why a lot of people reached out.
Tyler:So, once that one-year commitment ends, is that it?
LianaNo, it’s not. So, the volunteer’s formal obligation is finished after one year, but the volunteer and the family are welcome to continue that relationship if they choose to. And we are clear with that to both parties. And often those relationships go one, two, three years or become lifelong relationships.
Tyler:Well, that makes sense. That’s really nice.

So, how has it been going? What kind of feedback are you getting from the newcomers, the refugees, from volunteers, from the community? Has the funder had anything to say about it?
LianaWell, I mean, clients, the clients that we support, the refugees, are surprised to see when they first arrive 10 people smiling at them and welcoming them. So, they’re not expecting that, and we aren’t obligated to that. That’s just something that we saw a gap and we decided to do. So, that’s usually how the clients react initially.

But we have received such positive feedback from our volunteers. It has been completely life-changing for many of them to work so closely with a new family that has faced trauma beyond imaginable and if they can bring even a slight sense of ease, relief, or comfort or confidence, that’s what keeps our volunteers going.

So, our volunteers feel honored to provide some stability in a new life of unknowns for the families, but really, it’s not about all the hardships. Our volunteers share the beauty of Canada and experience beautiful moments with families while introducing them to many first experiences. So, although our volunteers are only obligated for one year or less, often lifelong relationships are formed due to the close nature of this type of work.

And when we inform clients at their one-year exit interview that the volunteers are released of their duty and they will no longer — we will no longer share the client’s confidential information with them, clients usually feel a sudden sense of loss, regardless of their ability to continue these relationships informally. But this really just is a good example of how strong these relationships and connections become when there is so much trust and confidence invested into these clients. And the volunteers and the larger community just really grow from this experience.

On the client’s side of it, former government assisted refugee clients’ involvement with the New Canadian Centre speaks for itself. We have multiple volunteers currently on teams that came actually themselves as government assisted refugees through our center one, two, or three years back. So, they wanted to join support teams to build their skills, resume, but more importantly, with hopes of really giving back and even a sliver of what they received from their support teams who lifted them up in their first year in Canada.

So, it’s really amazing to see; it’s beautiful to see.
Tyler:Yeah. That’s really nice.
LianaFor volunteers themselves, often they learn new things about the community by acting as a guide to new families. They explore things they never had before. That also builds their confidence and knowledge of our community here in Peterborough.

For the funders, I can’t speak too much to that. But many incredible success stories have formed as a result of the community pitching in to uplift new government assisted refugee families. Other organizations and private sponsorship refugee groups come to us to ask for advice, templates, tips, and we have presented all over the place at churches, community centers, schools just to encourage folks to get involved and share some of the lessons we’ve learned.

We receive a significant amount of funding from IRCC to run these programs and services, and we wouldn’t have government assisted refugees here without the government. So, it’s really meant that more permanent residents are now using our programs at the New Canadian Centre, which basically equates to us expanding our services, our activities, and events that we have because there can be a higher level of attendance.
Tyler:And do you get sponsorship groups — is that what you call them, volunteer groups?
LianaWe call them refugee support teams.
Tyler:Right. I suppose — do you get people coming back and doing it with different families over time?
LianaYeah. We have had many volunteers who are now on to their third family. So, they’ve just really enjoyed the experience. There are definitely hardships and uncomfortable moments, but all in all, I think most people have a very positive experience and come back for more.
Tyler:Okay. So, as you know, our intention with this podcast is to share promising practices with other people in our network at other settlement agencies across Ontario in the hope that we might inspire them to try something similar at their agency, in their community. So, if you were sort of walking someone through replicating this model elsewhere in some other community, what would you say are sort of the key elements that need to be in place and why?
LianaWell, we certainly have learned a lot over the last three years. I would say some of the key elements, one is designate a staff to manage and liaise with volunteers regularly. They will have a lot of questions in the beginning and some of them we figure out with the volunteers and some of them we have the answers to. So, that’s key is just a lot of communication to make sure that everyone is supported, including the families and volunteers.

Forming a team before the families arrive and orienting them on what the government assisted families receive, what is missing, and how they can help. Just making it really clear for volunteers to get involved and assigning them rules and keeping them motivated so that they don’t fall off.

Another key element, we have really learned this throughout the years, is having a strong team leader with strengths in organization, communication, delegating work, and problem-solving. This is really crucial in the beginning months when there’s a lot to do, but members are really nervous themselves. They don’t know how to help, can’t keep up with the daily happenings of the busy family. So, team leaders are involved, but they really take a step back and act as a point of contact between our organization, the family, and the team members.

So, they see almost the bigger pictures. Are needs being met? Do we have gaps in the team? Do we need more volunteers for driving? Is the mother of the family isolated? Does the child have high energy and can benefit from enrolling in a sport? These kind of things.

So, the team will end up knowing the family more than anyone else.

Another key element have the team leader send regular updates to everyone to keep them updated and engaged. So, most of our teams actually use WhatsApp or email to send quick reminders and keep everyone updated.

We have found that Google calendar has been absolute lifesaver. We, at the New Canadian Centre, arrange transportation, child minding, interpretation, all using that platform. It reduces communication by at least 80% and decreases the room for error. The volunteers and us can both schedule things in a second on that calendar, see all of the details, the address of where they’re bringing the family, what it’s for, what documents they need to bring as a reminder. So, it is an amazing tool and I would highly recommend it.

And one of the other key elements would be team members, meaning volunteers, must take initiative and be fairly confident individuals. Every single family is different, and the resettlement process is really guided by each individual family’s needs and priorities. There is really no one right way to help in the resettlement process or no one pathway, so you have to take initiative and problem solve along the way when there’s a need or there’s a gap that hasn’t been filled by the service providers like the New Canadian Centre that are restricted in their involvement due to whatever barriers, policy, funding, etcetera.

So, we have found that people who didn’t take initiative or were nervous individuals usually tended to fall off. So, just trying to minimize wasting people’s time, that we seem really conscious of that moving forward as well.
Tyler:When you say the volunteers fall off, what is it that happens?
LianaYeah. I think, again, it’s a role where there’s not many volunteer roles like this where you’re working directly one-on-one with clients in their homes or in their community, whereas exposed to as much confidential information or involved in their health appointments. And I mean involved in the sense of just going to these appointments with them; you’re naturally exposed to things. It doesn’t mean you’re solving their health problems.

But with a lot of organizations, you have stricter boundaries, and we did too for our previous programs like one-on-one tutoring. You have to meet in a public space. You can only do so much, and it’s really regulated. There was really no way to do that because of the nature of this. The different sizes of families, the different amount of language barriers, cultural barriers, difficulty with transportation.

So, this is really a unique role where people are working really closely with families. And so, I think it’s hard for many people to not be told you can meet at this time and you have to do this thing. So, I think it’s the lack of delegating them work or an assignment. And that’s why I go back to you need a strong team leader so that they can — they’re not afraid of delegating that work or facing a language barrier with the family. They’ll figure it out. They’ll use Google Translate. They’ll just smile or act things out.

So, it’s really one where when people are, yeah, are nervous or they’re not willing to just figure things out.

And I’ll give you another example. If the mother has children that are really high energy, we’ve had really great volunteers who have maybe assigned each person to give the mom a break. Just watching the children at their own home. Just child minding. And that significantly helps with her health and gave her a break to focus on herself. But if somebody’s not aware of those things and doesn’t take the initiative, the New Canadian Centre staff won’t necessarily know that and jump in and say okay, go child mind at this time. It’s really something that the group has to do.
Tyler:Right. And because they’re so connected and so involved with that family, that’s the kind of thing that only they would know.
LianaYeah. Exactly. We wouldn’t know that, and we wouldn’t really be able to jump in in that way of having more restrictions as a service provider.
Tyler:Not only restrictions, but you’re just — you’re busy. You’ve got other things you have to do.
LianaYeah. That too. I would love to go do child minding for an hour and give myself a break.
Tyler:Okay. So, here’s the part where you get to be a bit self-critical. If you were starting from scratch, what would you do differently? Or maybe are there some issues or challenges you’d want to advise others to keep an eye out for?
LianaYeah. So, I mentioned that in the beginning there was about 500 people all that once that stepped forward from the community. Now, in the beginning we had really, really large teams. Usually between 12 and 15 people. It seemed like the best-case scenario, the more the merrier, but we realized that that is not true. Usually between 3 and 8 or up to 10 is all you need in most cases with most families. Anything more really will create difficulties with communication. There won’t be enough roles for each member.

And again, people kind of fall off just because it’s hard to keep up with — even the team leader, it’s hard for them to keep up with who’s on their team because at times you’re working with total strangers and other times you’re working with maybe volunteers from your workplace or a neighborhood group or something like that. So, I think small is usually better.
Tyler:So, this is interesting. I didn’t realize that the teams were sort of sometimes maybe cobbled together of people who don’t have a previous relationship with each other. Because with the private sponsorship program often it’s like people from the same church or synagogue or whatever.
LianaYeah. So, actually, that is a good point. And in the beginning when we had so many people naturally I think people came in small groups or they encouraged their friends or family or workplace to get involved, so it did tend to be a lot more teams of people that mostly knew each other already. But as more and more people got involved and they were — you know, not as many people were stepping forward, now it’s almost always complete strangers that were forming these groups.

So, that alone can be a challenge, but it can also be great because you don’t have any prior tension or, you know, it’s just easier to work with complete strangers we’ve found for a lot of the teams. And sometimes a team will pull in one or two people that they know, but then they need the rest of the spots filled with other volunteers that have just applied to the New Canadian Centre.
So, actually that is one of the challenges. We thought that it would always be better to have people that are familiar with each other, like a church or a mosque or a neighborhood or workplace, but mixed availability and skill sets is often better because then you can cover all of the areas. There’s somebody always available at any point in the day or evening or weekend to help the family out.
Tyler:Right. So, in some ways if it’s a group of people who already have a previous relationship and they’re all keen on doing something to help, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a breadth of skill sets and people with certain backgrounds and knowledge that is required for this thing. So, if it’s people who are strangers you can kind of pick people and put them on the team because of the knowledge that they have.
LianaYeah. Exactly. And we’ve done that when we have a large amount of people coming forward. We kind of mix and match people. You know, these people are retired, these people have jobs in the day. This person has a medical background and the family has a lot of health issues. Something like that. And then we form a team that we think will best match that family.
Tyler:I see.
LianaAnd an example of that, we had a team that was all teachers. So, it was fantastic, they were all eager, but nobody was available during the day which happened to be when, of course, most of the appointments were in the beginning that they needed just help with navigating. Going to the doctors and getting vaccinations and whatnot until they were kind of settled.
TylerRight. That’s very interesting.

Okay, so back to challenges or issues that came up.
LianaYeah. So, one of the biggest challenges on the volunteers’ side is volunteers need to set boundaries. They need to be honest about their availability, the level of desired involvement, and what type of roles they want to play on this team. And I always encourage them to communicate this from the beginning just to avoid tension among team members and avoid burn out. And that can be whatever their boundaries or their limit or capacity is. There’s no set limit. Some people, if they maybe help with housing search, maybe their limit is showing four viewings because they get kind of upset. So, I think really with boundaries it’s important to remind volunteers of this and kind of help them set their own boundaries.

Another challenge that we’ve had is, again, we want volunteers to speak up. Don’t wait until the family has burned bridges or the volunteer resigns. And it’s not that this happens often, but sometimes there’s just one issue that’s just, you know, really upsetting a volunteer or it’s frustrating them, and we want them to speak up. Communicate with us, communicate with the family so we can resolve it or help them not take those problems on themselves.

And we can do that. The best way that we’ve found to help volunteers speak up and be engaged and communicate what they’re feeling and their involvement is organizing regular team check ins rather than waiting for the team to do so. We organize about three team meetings within the first two to three months, and then we leave it up to the team leader to call meetings as necessary thereafter. And this just helps them ask any questions they want to the New Canadian Centre case worker, to the volunteer coordinator. Just check in where we’re at, where the family’s at, what are their priorities, what are our priorities? And it just helps kind of flesh out some of those issues.

And one of the other things is time commitment. I think one of the other reasons that people may fall off is time commitment. So, we say a minimum of three hours a week in the beginning months. And it really, again, depends. So, we have retired folks that do 20-30 hours, but that’s their choice and they want to really highly help the families integrate.

And then we have people that work full time and desperately want to be involved but, say, can only bring the family once a month on a weekend to a Saturday event, but they’ve stated that commitment to their team, to the family. And so, there’s no tension around their lack of involvement.
TylerSometimes it can happen that people sort of overstate their commitment from the outset and then aren’t able to meet it.
LianaYes. Exactly. Because at the beginning I think volunteers are really excited, naturally, and they want to help with all these things, but they have their own families and their own lives and their own problems that come up. And so, I mean, even if it changes down the road I always say just communicate with your team, let people know, let us know. We’d rather keep you than have you just hanging on by a thread. Right? So, we always say just communicate, be honest with what you’re going through so that we can keep you on the team and make sure that you’re happy and healthy, too.
TylerDo you ever have an issue where sponsors or the volunteers are doing too much? Or like helping too much?
LianaYeah. We do. And again, it’s about setting boundaries, I think. And that gray area where sometimes volunteers aren’t sure what is required or expected of them. So, one of the challenges is, again, taking on clients’ problems. The volunteers coming to us really stressed out saying oh, this happened to family and they have this. And often we say well, that’s actually the family’s problem and you don’t need to take it on. They are adults and they need to determine how to resolve the problems independently.

So, what we usually do is guide the volunteer on showing the family what’s possible, the different pathways, and letting them choose and supporting them in whichever pathway they choose, but not getting so involved that they’re losing sleep over something that is really not — shouldn’t be their problem or their responsibility.
TylerI see. Okay, so we’re getting close to, I think, covering all the bases. But did we miss anything? Is there anything else you’d want to add before we close it out?
LianaYeah. Well, I just want to reiterate that there is really no right way to support government assisted refugees through their resettlement. We have supported over 60 GAR families and had over 500 volunteers involved since we became a RAP center and every single time it’s different. There are definitely templates and ways to make it consistent, but every family is different, every team of volunteers is different, and every city has benefits and challenges when it comes to resettlement.

So, even our process has significantly changed from three years ago to what it is today.

So, for those who are on the fence about getting involved, I think you can adapt this model and choose a piece of the support even that is missing for your clients. And let’s say finding permanent housing, for example. And build a more manageable program around this so it is less overwhelming than taking on everything and more focused.

We have volunteers that have that have many contacts in Peterborough. They understand the housing rental market and can build excellent connections with landlords. So, we have them arrange viewings and work on this major piece of the puzzle. While others with trucks might help with moving from temporary housing to permanent housing. And sometimes it’s just about the ability to navigate the system.

So, for example, we had a single mom, two children, came through our doors. And with the volunteer support advocating for the family, she found permanent housing for the family on their fourth day in Canada, when this usually takes months and months of hard work and stress and searching. And in turn, that significantly reduces the amount of work on the New Canadian Centre staff that we would normally contribute to the same issue. And also, it accelerates the resettlement process for the family, freeing up more temporary housing units for more families to arrive.
LianaIt doesn’t have to be the full-on support in every aspect of resettlement. We have tried to focus on specific roles in the past, as I was mentioning, and it worked really well during the influxes where there were many clients at once with a similar need. Now it has slowed down quite a bit, so we generally have entire teams taking on multiple roles, which is the structure I mentioned.

But I really would encourage you to explore the possibility of supporting clients whether it’s refugees or clients from any other status beyond the requirements of what are set out. So, be aware where the gaps are for the family, and amongst your services, your staff, and consider filling that void with volunteer support teams to better meet the needs of the clients at your workplace. And staff time dedicated to roles beyond the capacity.

So, I’m sure that you will see a quick growth in more confident, self-sufficient clients by choosing any bit of that plan.
TylerThank you very much, Liana, for speaking with me and helping us share your work with the network.
LianaThank you so much, Tyler. On behalf of the New Canadian Centre and all of our incredible volunteers, thank you so much for giving us this opportunity.
Tyler:If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the other two with Roxanne Gilroy-Machado in Sarnia and Josefina Perez in Niagara. You can find those on the CIN website:

And if you have an interesting innovation of your own that you’d like to share with the network, please email

Thanks for listening.