Wellness Café keeps newcomers connected

By Dominique Daigle, community developer in the Greater Saint John Area

A lot of effort has been invested at all levels of government to attract more newcomers to our province – to help grow New Brunswick’s population and economy.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), New Brunswick welcomed a record 6,000 new permanent residents in 2019, with 1,035 of them planting roots in Saint John, a 24 per cent increase from 2018.

Horizon Health Network and the Saint John Newcomers Centre (SJNC) partnered to address some of the gaps in services faced by newcomers in the Saint John area. Founded in 2009, the SJNC is a non-profit settlement agency offering a wide range of services that promote newcomer integration and multiculturalism in Greater Saint John.

One of the elements many newcomers mentioned missing was having a safe place to talk about successes and challenges of arriving and settling in Canada. Positive progress in the attraction of newcomers to our city can often create challenges for settlement agencies as they try to meet their many needs. To settle and make Saint John their home, they need support.

Support includes finding employment offering living wages, affordable housing and navigating all parts of life in a new country. If navigating government systems can seem like an overwhelming task for Canadians, imagine how much more complicated it can be for someone who does not know the various levels of services and government? 

Tasks like how to open a bank account, get a Medicare card, access the workforce, obtain a primary health care provider, navigate the school system or simply how to dress your family for a Canadian winter can seem daunting.

As one of Horizon’s Community Developers and through my work with newcomers I became aware of the many things we may do things differently in our province and our city. Things I took for granted before as “the way it is.” It has opened my eyes to just how differently things can be in other countries. For example, in some countries there are no high school, college, or university graduations ceremonies!

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, and through conversations we realized a need for newcomers to meet with each other. The original idea was for people to meet weekly face-to-face over coffee or tea to give newcomers a safe place to chat about their experiences with fellow newcomers and locals, allowing them to connect them with their new surroundings.

This transformed into a vision for a Wellness Café, and it was going to be launched in March 2020. However, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan was put on hold.

We knew the needs of newcomers were still there and, in some cases, even greater as confinement made some of them feel even more isolated and unaware of the resources in the community.

One positive aspect of the pandemic is it forced us to be innovative and think outside the box to see how we could meet the need of the community.

We created the virtual Wellness Café where newcomers could connect over Zoom. From April to the end of June, the group met weekly. One week in French, the next in English. Over the summer months, we switched to bi-weekly gatherings as things reopened, and people seemed to cope better.

The group was made up of people who had recently arrived in the country, some who had been here a few years, and others who were born here.

Some of the topics discussed during the virtual Wellness Café included:

  • how to manage stress during the pandemic
  • ensuring the Public Health phases through COVID-19 were understood
  • what to do with our children
  • comfort food from different countries
  • nice spots to visit around the city and the province
  • working through culture shock
  • expectations when you arrive in the country

We also tried to include demonstrations of various stress management techniques such as deep breathing or grounding strategies. We have grown together through the red, orange and now yellow phases of this pandemic! 

One of the favourite topics was food, as everybody can relate to it! That week truly created moments of sharing, connection and laughter as people were eager to exchange traditions around food and, of course, recipes.

I participated in the Virtual Wellness Café as a co-facilitator and have learned so much over a short period of time from all the participants. I have witnessed resilience in a wonderful group of people.

As businesses reopened we introduced a few face-to-face activities, while still respecting Public Health guidelines. We had a picnic in the park and a guided tour of uptown Saint John, which was much appreciated.

Feedback has been quite positive, and many felt it helped them feel less lonely and isolated, as well as more connected to the community during these uncertain times. It is rewarding to help, and to be able to see the positive impact small gestures, like a safe place to talk, can have on people.

We are excited that the virtual Wellness Café will restart at the end of September 2020. Anyone interested in participating, please reach out to Dominique at Dominique.Daigle@HorizonNB.ca.

Dominique Daigle has been a community developer with Horizon since 2015. She currently supports francophones and newcomers across the Greater Saint John area. She is a graduate of Dalhousie University’s Master of Social Work program.

Born in Edmundston, but raised in Fredericton, she has experience working with various communities living in minority areas. She previously held diverse social work positions in child protection services, community social work and with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.  

Dominique is passionate about social justice, human rights, public engagement and empowering communities to creating sustainable change.

She is always on the lookout for community leaders, new partnerships, and different ideas to improve the wellbeing of her community. If any of these speak to you, feel free to reach out to her at Dominique.Daigle@HorizonNB.ca.