Skip to main content

After immigrating to Kelowna from Venezuela, I found it very difficult to feel at home in a foreign country. I was struggling to learn the language and had numerous doors slammed in my face while trying to find work. I was very lucky to find the YMCA where I started to volunteer and had the opportunity to learn more, connect with a community, and improve myself.

Three years ago, I decided to move to Canada after meeting my husband while teaching fitness classes abroad. Very few people understand how hard it is to be an immigrant, we are starting from zero, no matter what we did before coming here. When I first arrived in Toronto, I spoke little English. When we decided to move to Kelowna, I knew I wanted to be part of something that would help me integrate into the culture and learn the language. It was very easy to make friends in Kelowna as the Latin community is very welcoming and easy to get involved with.

Back home in Venezuela, I was an athlete and a coach, I also coached in China for a time so I thought it would be easy to find something similar here. I looked for work in restaurants and volunteer opportunities in gyms but was repeatedly turned down because of the language barrier. It’s hard to put into words how terrible that felt. I was frustrated and sad that I wasn’t able to do what I loved.

The Kelowna Resource Center recommended I apply to become a volunteer at the YMCA of Okanagan. I had never heard of the Y before and had no idea what to expect. When I submitted my volunteer application to the Downtown Y, I couldn't believe how welcome they made me feel! They opened their doors to me, listened carefully and were so supportive. After having so many doors shut in my face, it felt incredible to be received with such kindness.

The team enrolled me in a group fitness instructor certification class at H2O right away. They knew about my language barrier and provided me with all the necessary tools I needed to succeed. Once I completed my training, I began teaching group strength classes at the Downtown Y.

Instructing classes really brought me so much joy and the participants loved my classes too! I introduced Latin music and dances such as the cha-cha and salsa into our routines. I got to have fun and connect with teens, seniors, and everyone in between. The Y really is a community hub and I found the volunteer work to be incredibly rewarding.

Mariely and her baby girl

I had to stop volunteering to have my beautiful baby girl, who was born right before the pandemic. The time at home with my family has been so lovely but I miss the Y community that I began my Kelowna life with.

Volunteering really is worth it. It’s such a great feeling to be able to give back to the community while investing in yourself as well. Not only did I get to keep active at the Y, but I also got to connect with others and help them reach their fitness goals in a fun way! I can’t wait to get back to it.

The YMCA really helped me integrate as an immigrant. People think the Y is just a gym but it’s so much more, it’s a community that so many people like me depend upon. Whenever I meet someone who just moved here, mainly Latin people, I tell them to go to KCR and the YMCA. These are the two places that opened their doors to me. I will forever be grateful to the Y for helping me feel at home and build my community in a new country.