Last week, we had the opportunity to reach out to Jacky Tuinstra, the Executive Director at Matthew House, and chat about what makes Matthew House so special and how they’re overcoming COVID-19 challenges. Check out our conversation below.
Hi Jacky! Can you give us an introduction to Matthew House?
Matthew House was started 22 years ago by our founder Anne Woolger. At the time, Anne was working in homeless shelters and noticed that many people in the shelters were refugees or asylum seekers. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great support system in place for refugees and they often end up being numbered among the homeless. Thanks to Anne’s vision, Matthew House has four locations and we’re able to provide shelter and food for those refugees. We connect folks with English language training, help them with their work permit and legal aid, and also provide, not just to our residents but to all claimants, the Refugee Hearing Preparation Program. This program allows them to walk through what a refugee hearing will be like so that they’re prepared when they ultimately go before the Immigration Refugee Board and ask formally for the protection of Canada.
How did you get involved with Matthew House?
For me personally, I got involved with refugees a long time ago working overseas in Egypt, where I did a short volunteer placement with Sudanese refugees. More recently, I had the privilege of working on a project that trained refugee women how to use audio and visual media to tell their story confidently. Through that, I began to see our role as Torontonians and Canadians in building the future of our country. For most Canadians, our parents or grandparents have a coming to Canada story, so we can all appreciate the need to welcome newcomers — especially refugees. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us, and I feel it myself so strongly, to pay it forward, to have that open door and be welcoming to the people who are going to make our country great. There is so much potential and so much talent — if the rest of us can just throw our arms around refugees and welcome them in this way.
Describe your team and all of those involved with Matthew House.
We have a great team of staff — settlement workers and other folks that just support everybody in the house. What really makes Matthew house unique from other shelters is that we have what’s called a ‘small supportive homes model’. Each and every house has ‘house parents’ living there. They are very special volunteers who move in and live in the communities. Three of the four homes are specifically oriented to youth, so having those house parents there really provides a sense of normalcy and a family-like setting.
We also have a huge volunteer support team to help with cooking, provisions, providing ESL lessons,and transit orientation for everyone in the house. And then we have specially-trained volunteers who are retired immigration lawyers or folks who have worked in refugee law to help with the Refugee Hearing Preparation Program.
What is one of the most rewarding moments you’ve had working for Matthew House?
When I first started, we had a bumper year for babies. There were three babies born at Matthew house, which is substantial for the number of homes we have. One of them in particular had a housing challenge that was extra difficult and we worked hard to find something that would be safe and accommodating for both mom and baby.
Right before COVID-19, we had actually found a fantastic placement, but then because of the lockdown it didn’t work out. Initially we were so disappointed, but then our patience was rewarded. Good news came that there was a larger unit available and it better fit the mother’s needs. Even better, right nearby was another baby about the same age with the same name.
We have all these coincidences at Matthew house and I’ve learned to just start relying on coincidences happening, because they really do. I see people’s journeys unfolding as they were meant to.
The mother recently sent a note to say how happy she was with the housing and that the baby’s doing well. Knowing that because of Matthew house, we were able to find a place that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible to her just made me feel like we had completed the circle and she was ready to start her new Canadian life.
What is a project your team is currently working on?
Right now, we have a special video series that features refugees who are in a place in their life where they can share their story. In these videos, called World Table, they share their favourite food dishes from their countries and talk a little bit about themselves. We eat together so much at Matthew House and really connect with people through food. During COVID-19, it’s been the number one thing our volunteers and residents have been missing, so we thought this is one way we can invite the wider community to learn about us, make some food and eat together. Folks who sign up to become donors also get extra recipes and bonus content from the series.
What are some ways that people who are looking to help can contribute to Matthew House?
If you are considering donating, even a small amount monthly, that is really what helps us keep the pantry stocked. Contributing winter jackets, hygiene packages and other daily items is also a huge help. Even a small contribution towards a transit pass or a cell-phone plan goes much farther than you think.
If you have time to contribute, we hope to reopen the volunteer cooking programs in the Fall. We have also reopened the ESL tutoring virtually and in-person, so that’s always appreciated.
If you’d like to get your workmates or your family involved, every Fall we do a Scotiabank Charity Run. Because of COVID-19 this year, Scotiabank is having people sign up their teams online to run or walk anytime during the month of October, as long as they report their kilometres. We’re trying to build teams that are as geographically diverse as possible now because the run can be done from anywhere — we even have a team going in Australia!
And lastly, we are really big believers in building a place in Canada where our hearts are open to welcoming refugees, so if people can pray and meditate on Matthew House and on refugees that would be amazing. I think it helps refugees to know that they’re arriving in a community where people’s hearts are ready for them.
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