In 2016, Gretel Montenegro packed her family’s life into six bags and left Colombia in search of a better life in Canada.
For this week’s edition of People of Collingwood we spoke with Montenegro, 45, life coach and immigrant mentor.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia.
Q: What brought you to Canada, and when?
A: I came here in August 2016. I wanted to provide a better future for my two daughters. Sophia was four years old and Valentina was 12 years old.
Q: Can you describe what your life was like in Colombia before coming to Canada?
A: I was working as an engineer in a big company there. However, because of the violence and safety issues, I wasn’t feeling safe. Neither was my husband or daughters. We decided to pack our life into six bags and come to Collingwood.
We came to Collingwood because I decided to change my field (of work). I went to Georgian College to study as a social service worker, and worked as an immigrant ambassador.
I also did three years of study in life coaching. That changed my life. Doing that, I found my purpose in life.
My purpose in life is helping people. It makes me happy everyday.
Q: How did you feel at the time you made the move to Canada?
A: I felt anxious. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I wasn’t sure if it was the right step to make. Everything was so difficult. I was a credible person in my country, but when I came here I couldn’t even open a bank account. It made me feel small. I tried my best to talk to people, but my accent and my English not being great made it hard to communicate. We didn’t have any credit here. We were living in a hotel. We had a lot of struggles.
Several times, we considered moving back.
After a month of living in a hotel, I was on Hurontario Street and saw the Century 21. I was sitting on a bench with my kids, my husband and one bag of documents. I was crying.
We went in as a last try and met realtor Drew Easterbrook.
He was an angel to us. He fought on our behalf and even put up his name as a reference for us so we could find a place to live. He helped us apply for a bank account and told us where to go to get SIN numbers. He drove us around to show us the town. That changed a lot in our lives.
He said he wanted to help to show us how real Canadians help each other. We found a place to rent.
He helped us to do everything. He wasn’t paid to help us with that.
That Christmas, he came to our house and brought Christmas gifts for our kids. Just thinking about it makes me emotional. He was really our angel. We still keep in touch.
Now, I like to try to do that for others.
Here in Collingwood, there are not many agencies that help with immigration. I have tried to help informally. I recently changed my job; I now work at Tracks Employment Services.
Q: After Georgian, where did life take you?
A: I did my work placement at Home Horizon, and they later hired me. My first job there was as a life skills co-ordinator and then I moved into a housing manager position. I worked there for two years.
I started to see that now, more than ever, immigrants need help.
Q: You lent your support as a translator as part of a labour human trafficking investigation in 2019 that impacted some South Georgian Bay resorts. Can you talk about that experience?
A: A lot of it is confidential, so I can’t talk about a lot of it. Almost none of them knew English. I was connected with them through a local church that was helping. My immediate thinking was that they must be in trauma.
Through Home Horizon we went through some of our donors to ask for food and clothing to donate to them. I offered my help to serve as a life coach and as a translator for them in my free time. It wasn’t part of my job with Home Horizon. At 4 p.m. I would leave my job and run over there to meet people and connect them with people.
I wanted to make sure every one of them felt supported and understood in their own language what was going on, that everything would be OK and it wasn’t their fault.
Q: This week, you were recognized at the Simcoe County Newcomer Recognition Awards as the recipient of the Immigrant Mentor Award. How did you feel when you heard you won this year?
A: I felt like I won a Grammy! (laughs)
I feel really honoured. It’s not just about me; the whole immigrant community in an informal way has been creating a network here helping other immigrants because we have been in that place before.
The award isn’t just for me. It’s for the whole community.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like people in Collingwood to know about you?
A: I’d like people to know that I’m working here at Tracks now. Anyone who doesn’t speak English can come here and make an appointment with me. I’m always happy to serve as a (Spanish-English) translator.
I’ve helped some people from Syria too. I don’t know their language, but I know the feeling and I know some other local people from Syria so I can connect them to help with translation. We are here for them.
I started this job about three weeks ago because I want to help immigrants. It’s so funny that I was changing my job when this (award) was happening.
The universe told me I am doing right. It’s a big message telling me this is the right thing to do.
For our feature People of Collingwood, we’ll be speaking with interesting people who are either from or are contributing to the Collingwood community in some way, letting them tell their own stories in their own words. This feature will run on CollingwoodToday every weekend. If you’d like to nominate or suggest someone to be featured in People of Collingwood, email firstname.lastname@example.org.