The day after joining her husband in Canada, Gina Martinez was greeted by a fellow church-goer with a sincere hug.
The woman explained that she had been doing research on Colombian culture and found out that they like hugging.
“It was beautiful,” Martinez said. “I just said, ‘this is home’.”
Martinez moved her family to Campbell River in 2000, not knowing a word of English.
“It was a big barrier but I knew that if I wanted to be part of this culture I needed to learn the language,” she said.
Her kids were 12, 8 and 7 at the time and picked up the language quickly. For Martinez it was more difficult.
“There were choices, I could be at home, I don’t speak the language, but I said ‘no, I can do it’,” she said.
While they were getting their immigration paperwork sorted out, Martinez took language classes at the Immigrant Welcome Centre. Once everything was settled she started taking classes at North Island College.
Upon arrival, Martinez quickly got involved with the Christian Life Children’s Centre. She started off as a volunteer and has, over the years, worked her way up to a full time position.
“It was something big for me, in our country we don’t really volunteer,” she said. “I wasn’t really familiar with that, it was something new for me.”
At the Children’s Centre Martinez discovered her passion for working with children, more specifically, children who had autism.
With a better understanding of English under her belt she pursued a certificate in early childhood development. She finished in four years.
“When I finished I said ‘okay if I already did that one I’d better finish’, so I continued and got the diploma,” she said.
It was a year or two later when things got really difficult. Martinez was working full time at the Children’s Centre, working on her Early Childhood Development Diploma, upgrading her English and studying for her citizenship exam.
“It was a little bit tricky,” she said.
With the support of her co-workers and boss, Martinez was able to successfully juggle all of her undertakings. She is a Canadian citizen, and this week, she graduated from NIC with her Early Childhood Development Diploma.
Martinez has visited Colombia three times, on her own, since she left, but this December will be the first time she takes her whole family for a visit.