First Friend Volunteer Like Family to Newcomers
Tracey Hogg has dedicated her life to being of service and helping others in need. She volunteered throughout her school years and after graduating, and when Tracey and her husband eventually settled in Saint John they immediately became foster parents. Tracey and her husband have cared for their adult son with special needs since he was nine years old, and her experience has allowed her to form a special bond with the Hamwi family, with whom she volunteers as a First Friend through YMCA Newcomer Connections.
Tracey first became involved with Newcomer Connections when she answered the call for welcome teams during the influx of Syrian refugees in early 2016. Tracey’s first experience working with a family had its challenges when it came to language barriers and cultural expectations, but Tracey said “I’ve been blessed with the most amazing family the second time around.”
The Hamwis are a family of seven who arrived in Canada in June 2016. Tracey began working with the family as part of a welcome team. As time passed, other members of the team were no longer able to commit the time needed to spend with the family, and Tracey became their sole helper, transitioning into the role of a First Friend.
First Friend volunteers can have an incredible impact in the lives of newcomer families to Saint John. They are able to help families with things as simple as directions, helping them shop for the first time, and navigating various resources in the city.
“We are so lucky to have the resources that we do,” Tracey said. “But you also have to kind of prove, or show them what life can be like using these services.”
The Hamwi’s eldest daughter has special needs, and the help that Tracey has offered the family – thanks to her own personal experiences – has completely changed their lives.
When Tracey first met the Hamwi’s daughter, she was dependent on diapers and a wheelchair, and couldn’t feed herself. Because Tracey understood the services that are available in Saint John, she was able to enroll the girl at Key Industries.
“Since being there, she’s now feeding herself and she will not sit in the wheelchair,” Tracey said. “She walks everywhere, she has temper tantrums now if she doesn’t go to school – so on weekends they have some trouble with her.”
Tracey explained that it has been a hard lesson for the Hamwi parents to understand and be comfortable with letting their daughter go to school each day. In Syria, she would have always been at home with her parents.
“They’re seeing how much she’s blossomed in the last year and a half,” Tracey said. “She’s making choices now. … When her four-year-old brother is a pain in the neck, she’ll turn right around and be a pain in the neck to him – which is amazing. It’s what you’d expect of her developmental level.”
Tracey understands how fearful it was for the Hamwis at first, but she was there to tell them it would be OK, and comfort them.
Tracey also helped sign up one of the Hamwi’s sons in the Cubs program. At first, the parents couldn’t understand why Canadians would send their children into the woods to play and sleep, but these are some of the cultural differences Tracey and the Hamwis are learning about one another. When Tracey and ‘Papa,’ as she affectionately calls him, went to pick up the young boy, he was completely shocked to see where his son had been for two nights, but was so grateful to the Cubs leaders for giving him that experience. A video of the young boy hiking and crossing a rope bridge quickly found its way to Syria, Jordan, Finland and more, as the Hamwis proudly shared it amongst their family.
Tracey and the Hamwi parents share a lot in common. They’re of similar ages and belief systems – they’ve discussed Christianity and Islam at length, and find it easy to learn from one another.
“We just have a really easy relationship going now, and we’ve got a lot in common,” Tracey said. “They’re teaching me a lot, and I’m teaching them as well, regarding Canadian laws and Canadian rules.”
Tracey and the Hamwis have developed such a close bond, they now call her sister or auntie, and she truly feels as though they are part of her family as well. Tracey attended the wedding of one of the Hamwis’ daughters, and accompanied her on her first ultrasound appointment.
During her time as a First Friend, Tracey has had some hard times of her own. She was diagnosed and underwent treatment for cancer and had to limit her physical presence with the family. Despite going through this life changing experience, her only complaint was that she couldn’t cuddle the two youngest boys due to her lowered immune system.
Tracey has now completed her treatment and is back in the family’s home, sharing memories and laughter and love.
Tracey has even begun tutoring some of the family members to help improve their English abilities. Oftentimes they’re joined by neighbours who also need a bit of help. The family sometimes rely on their seven-year-old son to translate, but in this way Tracey is helping them become more independent.
“I’ve always wanted to encourage an inclusive society – whether it be special needs or other cultures – wherever I could,” she said.
For Tracey, the experience of working as a First Friend has completely changed her life. She greets newcomer families with a smile and a ‘hello’ whenever she sees them around the city, and the feeling she gets from giving them that moment of friendliness has helped her come out of her shell – she’s always considered herself a bit of an introvert.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of the relationship than they have. I’ve grown within myself so much.”