Tomas Avendano, co-founder of Multicultural Helping House Society in East Vancouver is this year’s recipient of the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism. When he moved to Canada from the Philippines, he experienced first-hand the hard realities of an immigrant’s life here. He says this inspired him to help immigrants integrate into Canadian society.
On October 24, 2014, Tomas Avendano, President and CEO of Multicultural Helping House Society was conferred the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism in the Lifetime Achievement category by Jason Kenney, Minister of Multiculturalism. This award recognizes Avendano for his exceptional contribution to pluralism and the integration of newcomers and immigrants into Canadian society.
This prestigious award is named after late Senator Paul Yuzyk, who is regarded as the “father of multiculturalism” for his pivotal role in both the development and implementation of the multiculturalism policy in Canada.
Avendano employs the metaphor of planting a tree that grows to bear fruit to describe his life’s work in multiculturalism resulting in this award.
“I am challenged by the fact that I have to do more. I owe what I do not to myself but to God,” Avendano says.
An immigrant’s life
“In 1982 I came here at the age of 53. Being an immigrant during that time, it was hard to survive. Of course, I found it hard to find work,” says Avendano.
Eventually, Avendano found a position as a maintenance worker at McDonalds’s, a job he performed for 12 years.
“Back in the Philippines, I had a good life as a politician and professor. But I found that I could not live under martial law – there was no freedom. Also as a teacher, your value of everything is higher,” Avendano says.
Moreover, Avendano explains that he wanted to rejoin his extended family in Canada. He says it took him 10 years of trying until he managed to get a visa to come here.
Avendano’s struggles as an immigrant spurred him onto social activism. His new life also got him thinking about multiculturalism in Canada and how to facilitate immigrants to better integrate into their new homeland.
“I was challenged by the fact that no immigrant coming here should suffer the same as I did,” says Avendano.
Serving the community
In 1996, Avendano started the Filipino Canadian Support Society (FCSS) as a self-help neighbourhood group in Surrey and Delta. Eventually, he succeeded in bringing the entire Filipino-Canadian community of the lower mainland together and raised funds to purchase land on Fraser Street for a community centre to be built.
“Now I feel that being in another country, we have to display, as part of our culture, that we are generous people in our service to the community. So instead of the Filipino Canadian Support Society, I want to change it to a Multicultural Helping House Society (MHHS) and open the door to the world,” says Avendano.
In 2001, Avendano and other community leaders founded MHHS to serve the needs of all immigrants and newcomers in the community.
“Tatay (as Avendano is affectionately called) has achieved what other Filipinos wanted to do and failed – like building a community centre,” says Crisanta Sampang, media specialist at MHHS.
Avendano’s work in establishing and developing the growth of MHHS has earned him both the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal (2002) and the Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012).
“The value of MHHS is to help those who are in need. Lots of people who are coming here need settlement services, jobs, counselling, workshops and information. You have to see to it that they are prepared to enter the Canadian workforce. We continue to follow up until they are happily employed,” says Avendano.
In May of this year, Avendano launched the MHHS Charitable Foundation as a fundraising arm for MHHS.
Retirement is not an option for Avendano because, as he says, his life isn’t his own.