Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Building a bridge to kids overseas

Russell children help reunite Filipino families

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RUSSELL -- Rheane Gray's two children were giving her a hug at the Mother's Day brunch in the Russell Inn last year when she looked up and saw Catherine Samson watching them, her lower lip trembling.

Samson works in the kitchen at the Russell Inn, one of 30 Filipinos employed at the hotel on work visas, many of them separated from their families overseas. Samson hadn't seen her children in two years, and the hug triggered a wave of emotion.

The scene upset Gray and she told her kids why when they got home. Her son Van, now 8, volunteered to set up a lemonade stand to raise money to fly the children to Russell but older sister Ayla, 13, said no, this was going to require serious money.

From there, the story goes like one of those Saturday matinées where the children propel the movie's plot and the grown-ups are mere dumb-faced props.

Ayla and Van began by going door-to-door in Russell to raise funds, handing out a hand-written letter that explained their project. Part of it reads: "To most children, moms and dads are the most special people in their lives. Know how hard it is to go to camp or ever leave your mom to go to school some days? Imagine leaving your mom or dad for over a year and not knowing when you will see them again."

Van and Ayla also began making speeches, first to their classrooms and then to wider audiences including churches, the Manitoba Women's Institute and the Vagabond Theatre Co. in Binscarth. "We wanted everyone to know we have these wonderful people living with us who really need our help," Ayla said.

Van eventually opened his lemonade stand and other kids jumped on-board. Soon, lemonade stands were popping up all over Russell, with some residents consuming more lemonade that summer than they could recall in their lifetimes. Kids also held garage sales and shook out their piggy banks. Some kids made donations in lieu of accepting birthday presents. Recently, the Knox United Church youth group organized a dinner, with Filipino newcomers preparing traditional Filipino meals, that raised $1,200.

Van often goes around wearing an old newsboy cap handed down from his grandfather, while Ayla sports a black beret. As word spread, people just started handing the kids money when they saw them on the street.

If the children's goal was to reunite families by this coming Mother's Day, they have come up short -- but just barely. Samson, who fought back tears of emotion a year ago, expects her husband and three kids to arrive in late June. That's just the start. More children are on their way. Kids Helping Kids, the name Ayla and Van gave their project, has raised $13,000 so far, enough to pay the airfare for at least nine children to land in Russell.

"It's overwhelming," said Roi Cabrera, who is manager at the Tim Hortons next to the Russell Inn. He expects his children will arrive in early August.

"Usually it's the Filipino community supporting fellow Filipinos. We didn't expect to get this kind of support from the whole community."

Emelinda Olarte, whose children should arrive around the end of the year, said, her eyes tearing up: "We've never felt anything like this before."

The cost of airfare isn't the only impediment to reuniting families, but it's a big one. Only high-skilled immigrants arriving under the immigration nominee program can bring their families immediately. For people filling service-industry jobs such as in Russell, there is at least a two-year waiting period.

The costs delay it further. Besides airfare, there are application fees and landing fees and other charges that add up to more than $1,000 per child. For Roi, it will cost $4,000 for just the paperwork to bring his three kids to Russell.

Airfare runs about $1,000 per child in the off-season of summer, but costs more the rest of the year. By paying that, Kids Helping Kids is speeding up the reunifications.

The Russell experience is more evidence of the success of the immigration nominee program, which started in Manitoba.

The Filipino employees "have just been exceptional," said Wes Osborne, Russell Inn's executive chef.

"They just have an exceptional work ethic, they're reliable, and it's a pleasure to have them," he said.

Meanwhile, mom Rheane stays in the background. "These guys are passionate," she said about Van and Ayla.

"I'm just happy they understand about caring for other people."

They don't plan to stop fundraising. There are 13 more children on the waiting list. Van wants to hold a fair with one of those bouncy, inflated castles "and those things where you shoot the ducks down," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 A11

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