John and Wendy McCumber in one of the English classrooms at YMCA Newcomer Connections.

Retirement was never going to be a time in John and Wendy McCumbers’ lives to just sit down and relax. The Saint John couple has always been community minded and looked for ways to be involved and help others.

During the influx of Syrian refugees in 2016, a member of the McCumbers’ church made a plea for volunteers to form a welcome team for YMCA Newcomer Connections, to help settle new families into the region. John wasn’t able to participate as much as he hoped because of other volunteer commitments, but Wendy went on to successfully settle five Syrian families in Saint John.

“I have a heart for the newcomers, and they’ve just blessed my life totally,” Wendy said.

Both John and Wendy had been involved with the YMCA in some way as they grew up. John’s experiences with clubs at the Y in high school were always good, and he wanted to use his time to volunteer and give back. The YMCA offers the flexibility for him to work around his schedule and volunteer a few hours twice a week.

Working as a classroom assistant for English language classes at Newcomer Connections was the best fit for John’s schedule, and it encouraged Wendy to get involved in the same way.

While John assists language instructors in the classroom, Wendy began attending Crafts and Conversation meetings with newcomer women. There, she is able to enjoy some of her favourite hobbies – knitting and making various crafts – and she is able to talk and joke with women who are working on their English abilities, letting them learn in their own way.

“I’m known as the question girl to my friends,” Wendy said. “I enjoy asking them where are you from? How many children do you have? Things about their culture – I’m very interested. I’m also interested in languages as well, so that’s what drew me in.”

Wendy has also volunteers in a classroom setting, working as an assistant in the Mom and Baby class offered to new mothers learning English. The students in this class often come from many different countries with varying levels of English. Wendy spends most of her time playing with the children, to allow their mothers the chance to learn without distractions, but she offers help wherever she can.

“There’s a lady from the Congo that speaks French,” Wendy said. “I have a fair knowledge of French. … If I was playing with the kids, she’d just sit there and you don’t know whether she’s getting it or not. So I’d come up and tell her in French what it is, and then she’d go, ‘Oh!’ and respond.”

Language is the biggest barrier when it comes to connecting with newcomer students but John makes it work however he can.

“They all seem to be eager, which is nice,” he said. “Makes the classroom a little easier to be in when they want to work and want to be there.”

John has learned a lot about teaching and how to relate to the students by working alongside the language instructors at the YMCA. He works one-on-one with students who need a bit of extra help, and he brings in Canadian magazines to help teach the women in class more about their new country and the culture here.

John has been given opportunities to break out of his own shell and lead the classes, helping the students learn at a pace that is comfortable for them. John appreciates the independence he is offered from the language instructor and the trust she has in his help as a classroom assistant.

“The give them every chance for success,” he said. “They try to set the students up for success, which I like.”

Before volunteering with newcomers at the YMCA, John and Wendy said they may have believed the same fearful stereotypes surrounding newcomers that so many people have but their volunteer experiences have changed their perspectives.

“I have come to find out that they’re lovely people,” Wendy said. “They really are. They’re just like you and I! It’s just, they talk a different language.

“It can be heartbreaking at times when you listen to their stories and hear little bits and pieces about their lives and what they’ve had to endure, what they’ve overcome, and your heart goes out to them,” John said. “They want to be Canadian, they love Canadians, but you know they miss home.”

Getting to know newcomers has reinforced John and Wendy’s drive to offer their help as volunteers. They encourage anyone who has the time and interests to get involved.

“If I had more time to give, I probably would,” John said. “Just trying to help them every day and try to get to know them a little bit better and watch them succeed, it feels good. It makes me feel good.”