Awarm smile combined with a ‘beyond everyday’ attitude is what it takes to make a good impression.
At the Vancouver International Airport (YVR), that first impression seems to be taken seriously. Since 1989, thousands of volunteers have been recruited to provide passengers and guests with directions and information on facilities, retail and airport services.
They are nearly 400 today, including five who started in the first year of the programme. The volunteers’ green outfits make their nickname obvious: the Green Coats. With a consistent smile on their face, they are ready to answer any question.
“Age doesn’t matter,” says the Supervisor of Volunteer Programs for the Vancouver Airport Authority, Drew Pankrath. However, it is evident that those with lots of life experience and an openness to diversity are the most valuable.
Once a week Benno Ganz, a 78-year-old immigrant from Germany, volunteers for the Green Coats. For him, the activity is fun and gives him the valuable opportunity to be among a diverse set of people.
“It also gives me the feeling of being useful,” he says. “Last week I helped about 80 people in four hours.”
Helping travellers from all corners of the globe is something that Ben, as he likes to be called, has been doing for a long time. On top of being of a Green Coat he and his Canadian-born wife have always housed travellers in their home in Oakridge.
“We like to have young people around us, and it brings some enthusiasm to our lives,” he says.
The former teacher with a master’s degree in Adult Education from the University of British Columbia (UBC) estimates that more than a dozen people have lived in his house since his three kids were old enough to leave home.
From artists to students, the guests have come to Vancouver for different reasons and have usually stayed for several months.
“We introduce these people to the Canadian culture,” Ben explains in heavily German-accented, yet perfect, English. “I show them around, introduce them to my friends, and even help with their homework.”
Ben and his wife have also established close ties with the Tanzanian and Kenyan communities. In the 1980s, after more than eight years of living and teaching in those African countries, Ben taught Swahili at Langara College. The couple also organized events in local schools in order to raise money for mosquito nets and the digging of wells in East Africa.
They also provided financial support to the son of a fellow teacher from Tanzania until he could obtain his master’s degree.
Ben’s interest in other cultures, and his contribution to multiculturalism in the local community, reflect his own journey as an immigrant in the early 1950s. He was born in Rienburg in 1934 and spent his entire childhood under the Nazi regime. In 1950, he arrived on the West Coast, where a world of freedom and big spaces awaited him and his family.
“As youngsters, we enjoyed the freedom a lot,” Ben recalls.
His first job was to plant trees in the Fraser Valley. In 1957 he got married and became a Canadian citizen. One year later, the newly-weds moved to Vancouver.
Ben acknowledges that multiculturalism has expanded throughout the city, and that hearing people speak their own native languages has become commonplace.
Even though he is proud of being able to speak German he thinks that being unilingual is an obstacle for the full integration of different ethnic groups into Canadian society.
He thinks it’s important to learn the language. In his volunteer work and at home, he aims to help do just that, and is proud of his own progress.
“We were told to learn English back then,” says Ben in perfect German. “Now, I feel totally integrated here”
“I still visit Germany very often, but after 62 years in this country, I consider myself totally Canadian.”