HOST Program: Creating Friendships

You come from a country where sleeping in hammocks is the custom. Now that you’re in Canada, you have to get used to sleeping in a bed. Problem: who do you ask about how to make it up with sheets and blankets and pillows? You send your children to school in winter bundled up in their snowsuits, but with no “indoor” clothes on underneath. In your country of origin the same clothes served the children well, both indoors and outdoors. In Canada, there are different needs, but how were you to know that?

These are the little things about adjusting to Canadian life that many newcomers have to face. Big things, like finding housing and employment, and enrollment in ESL, are things your settlement counselor can help you with. But who helps you with understanding the social and cultural part of living in Canada? Who helps you become part of the community?

In the 1970s, communities in Canada came together to help Vietnamese refugees (known as the “boat people”). The Canadian government looked at their own settlement programs and discovered that the community support given to these refugees as well as the personal support given to privately sponsored refugees helped them become part of Canadian society much more easily than those the government sponsored. The community and personal support programs were the model for the Canadian government in 1985 to create the pilot HOST Program of matching volunteers to newcomers.

The program was instantly successful, and today there are over 25 HOST Programs across Ontario with more in development and/or awaiting funding. They are available to newcomers and refugees with permanent resident status.

What does HOST do?

HOST matches volunteers to newcomers with similar interests and backgrounds. The volunteer becomes a friend to the newcomer, and they do what friends do – go for coffee, shopping or to the movies, and talk about ordinary, day-to-day things. The benefits go both ways: for the volunteer, they have the satisfaction of helping someone as well as learning about the newcomer’s culture and language. For the newcomer, they not only have someone they can practice their English language skills with outside of the classroom, they have someone they can ask about things they don’t understand but feel uncomfortable asking their settlement counselor.

Volunteers can be Canadian born or former newcomers who want to pass on their experience to new arrivals. Volunteers are interviewed and asked why they want to become a host; they must fill out an application, supply references and have police checks done. They are then trained on the objectives of the HOST Program and what the newcomer experience is, especially for those volunteers who were not immigrants themselves. They are then matched with their clients – women to women, men to men, families to families, and, in some organizations, a youth to youth program is also offered.

Matched volunteers and clients are also encouraged to meet with other volunteer/client matches in an informal way. Social events like potluck picnics (where those attending bring a small sample of their special foods to share with others), sports events and outings can often grow into events that involve the larger community. The Community Cup in Ottawa started off as a small co-ed soccer tournament within the HOST Program. A handful of participants has grown to an attendance of800-1,000 and is an event that the larger Ottawa community looks forward to as well.

Another type of matching that is offered in some centres is professional mentoring. In Hamilton, the HOST Program and Employment Program run by the Settlement and Integration Services Organization(SISO) matched 22 volunteer managers from four major banks with newcomers who had financial services/banking backgrounds. The volunteers worked with the newcomers for three months. The newcomers learned about the social as well as the work-related culture in Canadian banks while the volunteers got an opportunity to see the level of their clients’ experience and skills and how well they worked in a Canadian bank. They also helped the newcomers overcome the barriers they faced in getting their accreditation recognized. At the end of the program, 14 of the 22 were hired to work in the financial sector and related fields!

Many of the HOST Programs also offer youth to youth matching. Toronto’s Youth Assisting Youth(YAY) is an organization specifically for youth that matches youth volunteers aged 16 to 29 with children aged six to 15. Their focus is to help the child adjust to Canadian culture and help them through any emotional, social or behavioural problems that can come from moving to a new country.

For newcomers who are unable to be matched individually with a volunteer, there are group activities specifically for unmatched clients. Conversation Circles are run by a HOST Program volunteer and they give the newcomers an opportunity not only to practice their skills in speaking conversational English, but they also act as a social group, to help newcomers connect with others. In Hamilton, SISO has partnered with the James Will Community Centre to create a sewing club for newcomer women. With 12 donated sewing machines, the women can practice or learn sewing skills and the group activity allows them to make new friends, as newcomer women often experience more social isolation than men.

The crowning achievement of the HOST Program is when a client who has benefited from the program then becomes a volunteer. One remarkable young man, a government assisted refugee, was matched with a Canadian peer his own age with whom he developed a great friendship. He went on to McMaster University and there got other students at the university involved in volunteering by creating his own volunteer group –Care for Underprivileged and Refugee Empowerment (CURE). He became part of the community by his participation in the HOST Program, and in return, gave back what he had so generously been given by becoming a volunteer and encouraging others to volunteer as well. The HOST Program often creates friendships among volunteers and clients, and helps to create strong social and cultural bonds between newcomers and the communities they live in. Whether it is something as personal as learning how to make a bed or an opportunity to get out and socialize with others, the HOST Program offers opportunities for newcomers to make friends and become part of the community.

For more information about the HOST Program, please visit the HOST website (Click here.)

To find out who offers the HOST Program in your area, please click here.