Valerie Parks: A True Ambassador of Wood Buffalo

By Myra Ross - Thursday, July 3 2014

Valerie Parks doesn’t have a paying job or a time card, but she has only two free hours each week.

Valerie Parks

Valerie Parks

Becoming Canadian in Wood Buffalo: This article is part of a series of stories, profiles, photographic essays, blogs and videos documenting the journey undertaken by newcomers to our region.

Series Index:
Becoming Canadian in Wood Buffalo

In addition to attending art classes at MacDonald Island, Parks spends Monday and Friday mornings helping newcomers with their English and resume-writing (all at the Franklin Avenue A&W that serves as her unofficial office) and two hours a week she’s a volunteer facilitator with the YMCA’s Conversational English/Making Canada Home program.

Parks gives a great deal of her time to help new residents.

“I have always had a heart for immigrants, Metis, First Nations and the unemployed — people who want to get ahead,” she says, explaining her passion as a volunteer, a career counsellor, an employment adviser, a resume writer and a community ambassador. “I think I’m an encourager.”

Leaving the door wide open to strangers is something Valerie learned as the eldest child among five siblings and two adopted siblings who first arrived as temporary placements. She grew up in Campbell River on Vancouver Island with parents who were highly regarded and trusted, so much so that RCMP and social workers would often drop off children in crisis.

One December 25, the family had begun to wonder if it would be the first Christmas without a stranger at the dinner table when a police officer called to ask if they could take two young children for the remainder of the day. Parks’ parents told the officer to not only bring the children, but also their father, who had to leave for work the next day. Before their arrival at the house in a police vehicle, gifts with the visitors’ names on the tags were placed with the other Christmas presents under the tree.

Valerie Parks (right) leads an orientation session at the YMCA.

Newcomer Resource: The YMCA

The YMCA of Wood Buffalo, located in the Hardin Street Building at 9816 Hardin Street is a safe and welcoming haven for newcomers to the region. A number of settlement services are provided, including workshops for newcomers as well as information about schools, health care, child care, supportive counseling, translation of documents and orientation activities focused on integrating within the community.

All services are free of charge for clients who provide one of the following: permanent resident card, landing paper, work permit or a Letter of Acceptance as a Convention Refugee. Other services available in English and French are employment-related, such as resume- and cover-letter writing, interview preparation, job search strategies and a professional mentor Program for underemployed and unemployed professionals.

As well, newcomers at the YMCA can access computers for a job search, copier/scanner, fax machine, a job board and list of employers in the region and work search reference materials. In addition, working in collaboration with the Temporary Foreign Worker Advisory (provincial) Office, the YMCA addresses issues such as employment standards, human rights violations, housing and immigration matters.

A popular service available weekly at the YMCA is the ‘Welcome to Canada’ orientation group, which encourages newcomers to practice their English with the support of other newcomers and under the guidance of a facilitator. Topics can range from how to survive in Fort McMurray on $1,000.00 a month to the prevailing etiquette when changing a baby’s diaper at a recreational facility. The ‘Welcome to Canada’ groupings, which range from eight to 12 participants per session, help newcomers develop relationships and acquaintances with their neighbours from other cultures and language groups. The group meets each Wednesday from noon until 3 p.m.

(Other similar groups for English-as-a-second-language newcomers meet in the large study room on the second floor of the Fort McMurray Public Library at MacDonald Island on Tuesday morning, 10:30 a.m. until noon; Wednesday evening from 7:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. and every Thursday afternoon from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.)

“We always had gifts and clothing put away for surprise guests,” Parks says.

Parks arrived in Fort McMurray from Calgary with her husband in 2004. In Calgary, she worked at the Alberta Career Centre. After arriving in Fort McMurray, she worked until 2009 as an employment counsellor at the Metis Employment Agency on Franklin Avenue.

From 1989 until 1993, Parks also worked at Columbia College in Calgary, where she co-ordinated a two-week course that helped 93 per cent of its unemployed participants obtain jobs.

When asked why so many unemployed suddenly had jobs, she replies: “You take them and you tell them they’re worth something. You tell them they need to know what their skills are. They got jobs because they thought they had something to offer.”

Valerie’s experience at the Calgary Correctional Centre (Spy Hill Jail) also fortified her belief that you shouldn’t underestimate a person’s drive to improve their situation once they’ve decided to do so.

While working with men soon to be released from Spy Hill, she recalls, one inmate referred to himself with a small I in crafting his resume. She told him: “You’re not a small I, you’re a capital I.” Ten years later, the man had remained out of jail and, upon a chance meeting, he told Parks he still recalled the “small I, capital I” exchange.

Parks holds court at the A&W Mondays and Fridays because a number of newcomers told her they needed help with their resume- and letter-writing and she couldn’t afford to open her own office. When she asked A&W management if she could conduct her volunteer sessions in the restaurant, they agreed. No charge.

Asked about why she devotes so many hours without any remuneration, she replies: “Even if they gain one new word, I am more pleased than they are. If you give, you get back.”

“When I get a hug — that’s priceless.”

Orientation participant: English can be fun.

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