The gift of time

June 2, 2016 - 8 minutes read

Shayda shelves some books before a busy group of children enter the library for a morning session.

As the hub of a community, schools generate a great deal of volunteer activity, not only to support students and families, but to give back to those in need. At West Vancouver Schools, student volunteer initiatives not only start early and continue right through high school, but they also make an impact on lives locally and abroad.

On a few occasions, the story begins abroad, as it did for Shayda Vesali and her family, five years ago in Iran. That’s when she and her husband made the decision to apply for immigration to Canada in the hopes of building a better life for their son. While their decision was life-changing in all of the positive ways one can imagine, it also had some unintended and very welcome consequences at Chartwell Elementary, where her son, Amir, attends school in Grade 4.

For several weeks in September, Shayda would ride the bus to school with her son and wait on a bench until the end of day, when they would ride the bus home again to North Vancouver. Spotted by Farnaz Karimabadi in the course of her work, the school learned that Shayda was doing this daily because the family did not have a car at the time. Farnaz invited her into the school library, where she introduced her to librarian Doni Gratton, and her real integration to the community finally began.

“She had very little English when she arrived,” says Farnaz, whose first language is Farsi. “But she has changed so much in such a short time. She was so shy initially, she was hesitant to even talk to me, but the way the school is, everyone welcomes the newcomer here, and Doni embraced her and taught her everything.”

“In Farsi, we call what I’m doing Komak – helping,” says Shayda,” speaking comfortably in English. “But I have been given so much by the school that it’s Komak for both.”

Working in the library almost daily in the beginning, Shayda, who earned a degree in law in her home country, works closely with groups of children, and is a huge help to children who are also new to the English language. She embraced the role with dedication and enthusiasm, and also began taking English classes through the North Shore Multicultural Society, which offered classes this past winter for two hours, twice weekly at the school. She is currently on a waiting list for further classes through Mosaic.

For her part, Doni is thrilled about the extra help, as she has been working on setting up for a new learning commons at the school, and without another pair of hands, the job would have taken much longer to bear results.


Shayda and Teacher-Librarian Doni Gratton.

“Without Shayda, I don’t know how I would do it. She’s got her hand in everything here, and it is a huge help for me,” says Doni. “I have no additional TA time, so her work made it possible for my plans around the learning commons to come together much faster – she sets up displays, checks out and puts books away, helps translate with primary children who don’t speak English and has helped me get rid of 1000 deleted books and dismantle the old bookshelves.”

Much of the work in the library is done now, but Shayda continues to make herself indispensable to other members of the staff, and as a result, her help is paying even more dividends. Before her son was born, Shayda worked with a professor at her alma mater as a teaching assistant, and she longs to work again in the near future. She is currently job shadowing one of the supervision aides to learn about the role, and hopes to pursue a path to paid employment one day.

As with any transition, there is a downside. They miss their family back home and job hunting has been challenging, for both parents. They had a bigger place to live in Iran, and starting over meant downsizing. But they know a few families here who immigrated before they did, and they spend time socializing, going on picnics and making meals together whenever they can.

“Our parents cannot get a visitors’ visa unless we are able to support them during the time they are here, and we have to issue that invitation a year in advance,” explains Shayda, speaking this time with assistance from Farnaz. “That separation has been hard, but we are adapting so quickly and the community has been very generous and supportive.”

Her husband, a civil engineer, recently landed a job with a local architectural firm, and that has led to a decision to lease a car. Her son, who spoke very little English when the family arrived, has made amazing progress in all academic subjects, communicates in English very fluently and has settled in very well with new friends and activities.

“We chose this school by doing the research – both the high academic results and commitment as a UN Rights Respecting school were factors in our decision to educate our son here,” says Shayda. “Amir loves this school – he has adapted so fast, I was really worried about him at first but I’m relieved that he’s fitting in because of how inviting and friendly the place is. We are very thankful and appreciate the staff and school.”

For Amir, who loves soccer and plays with his dad at Ambleside, the future looks very bright. He saw pictures of the UBC campus taken by his dad recently, and has expressed an interest in studying architecture one day. His mother could not be prouder of her son.

Shayda is by all measures, a talented, highly educated parent who is dedicated to her community and family. But it is her passion to help those around her that earns her this month’s Class Act award. We are privileged to have you and your family in our midst, Shayda, and we wish you every success as you make the transition to life in Canada.