Bianca Bigoto isn’t from Winnipeg, but she does feel at home.
The 15-year-old native of São Paulo, Brazil, just completed Grade 10 at St. James Collegiate, one of over 100 students in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division’s international student program.
The students live with carefully selected ‘homestay’ families. In Bigoto’s case, that family is Dennis and Cherry Thoms, a River Heights couple. They have previously hosted three other international students.
"It’s difficult, with the language and figuring out how you’re going to adapt to a new city, but Cherry and Dennis made me feel at home really quickly," Bigoto says.
Cherry says it’s just a matter of treating their guests like they would any other family member.
"We really try just to incorporate them into our family and make them feel special, make them feel like this is their home, that they can do what they want within this house," says Thoms, a mother of two and grandmother of two.
"It’s a big change for them to be away from their family and I always feel that they need that attachment, they need to feel like they have a second family that they can trust, relax with and be part of."
"Also, if something goes wrong, we make it clear that we’re here 24-7. It’s just like we told our own kids, ‘If you need help, we’re here for you.’"
Grant Ganczar — assistant director of the international student program — says the primary purpose of the program is to bring diversity to its schools, but that the long-lasting relationships the students develop while here is a definite bonus.
"We’ve noticed in the last five years that a lot more students and former students are coming back and visiting their homestay families again," Ganczar says, noting many of the division’s international students choose to stay in Winnipeg to pursue post-secondary education.
"We’re also seeing a lot more parents coming here and visiting their child."
In fact, Marilena Bigoto — Bianca’s mother — is currently visiting her daughter and her adopted home, while also studying English. She says she’s noticed much "maturity" and "growth" in Bianca.
Cherry agrees, noting Bianca’s attitude when it came to the school’s requirement of meeting a specific number of volunteer hours.
"Before Bianca even knew she had to do volunteer hours she asked if there was some place she could go and volunteer. She went above and beyond," Cherry says.
Bianca volunteered three hours every Sunday at the Rady Jewish Community Centre working with special needs kids, an experience she says gave her perspective.
"It was really nice because you see the special needs some people have, and sometimes you are here in Canada and going through a difficult moment and it just makes you go ‘No, no, I can get through this,’" Bigoto says.
Bigoto is heading back to São Paulo soon but plans to return this winter, calling the program the "best experience of my life."
Cherry say she and Dennis will welcome Bianca back with open arms.
"If Bianca comes back in January, we’re going to make space for her," Thoms says. "Also, one of the German girls we had is coming back to go to university, so we’ll have a house full. But, it’ll be a house full of people we love."
To learn more about St. James-Assiniboia School Division’s international student and homestay programs, go to www.sjsd.net