Mama Robertina’s Journey:
From Client to the Heart of Christie’s Kitchen
Robertina and her family were the very first residents to stay at what was then World Vision Reception Centre, in 1989. Last month we celebrated her incredible legacy, as she retired after nearly 30 years of serving.
Strong, fearless and loyal – for nearly three decades Robertina has selflessly offered her delicious food, care, and guidance, to countless refugee families as well as many grateful staff.
Coming to Canada
Robertina has a long and rich personal and professional history with CRWC. She and her six daughters were one of the first families to ever reside at what was then the newly opened World Vision Reception Centre (later to become Christie Refugee Welcome Centre). They had been living in Costa Rica as refugees for four years after fleeing the war in Nicaragua. During this time, she remembers the arduous process of applying to come to Canada, filled with lots of paperwork, waiting, and being turned down.
Originally, she had applied as a government-assisted refugee and was accepted to go to Alberta where she had a small network of people she knew. Yet, it wasn’t until her final immigration appointment that she received the news that there was no longer space there and was offered to come to Toronto, Ontario instead. She recalls being given the offer on a Monday to travel to Canada that Friday and agreeing without hesitation! She saw coming to Toronto as God’s confirmation that he was looking after her and her family.
Connection to Christie
Arriving at Pearson airport late one evening In May of 1989, Robertina was picked up by a volunteer and driven to Christie where she spent her first night in Canada. However, the organization looked a fair amount different than it does today.
During her stay her family of seven occupied a full wing of one of the buildings, a wing which has since become office space (including the office of our Executive Director Sam). She also distinctly recalled the lack of a full kitchen when she first arrived, as there was just a communal space with snacks and a microwave. Yet, what Robertina remembers most strongly is the care and kindness she and her daughters instantly felt by staff members such as Benche Garcia, who we are still lucky enough to have on our team at Christie!
When asked how people can help support refugees, she urged that everyone take the time to learn about refugees and what they need. For her, the greatest thing people offered was practical support of how to navigate life in Canada – how to do groceries, take public transit, find work, etc. The support she was shown meant so much to her that she sought out the ability to give back and make an impact in the lives of others refugees who have been through hard times.
Growing Alongside Christie
Robertina has played a crucial role in helping CRWC evolve into the organization it is now. Staring during her six-week stay as a client, Robertina quickly recognized that there was work to be done and instinctively began helping out anyway she could. For the first few years she volunteered with cleaning, by answering phones, and producing invoices. On March 29, 1993 she was officially hired as a Night Superintendent. Several years later, Robertina stepped up as Cook and has been in that role ever since. Countless nutritious meals, turkey dinners, and crowd-pleasing BBQs have come from the hands of this incredible woman!
Knowing firsthand how difficult and isolating the lack of personal connections can be for someone new to Canada, she has loved that her work allowed her to form meaningful relationships and have people know they are cared about. Through the years thousands of people have opened up to her and shared their oftentimes tragic histories and difficult journeys to Canada. Robertina shared that these stories have stuck with her but rather than succumbing to guilt or grief, she has used them as motivation to push forward and continue giving.
“Her service and commitment to people has gone above and beyond. We all have had her mother us in different ways. Especially when we had several single men living here, they all needed her to cook them food and they all called her mama. You just know how special she is when people come back to see her,” shared Kerri Sylvester, Christie Outreach Manager.
A Connection the Will Never be Severed
Even in her spare time Robertina has always loved hosting her ever-growing family and lending her service wherever it is needed. Unsurprisingly, she will be continuing her caretaker role into her ‘retirement’. Coming full circle, Robertina is soon moving to Alberta to support her daughter and youngest grandchild. After having her with us for thirty years it’s probably only fair that we let her go.
From being one of the first clients of the shelter to being the one who sees and makes a daily difference in the lives of shelter clients, Robertina’s legacy is undeniable. Therefore, her farewell was a huge moment for the whole Christie community. Before she left, we were able to bring together some of the people whose lives she has touched and force Robertina to take a rare break and hear just how special she is.
Beautiful words and memories were shared, as well as a touching poem written by Benche. We also let her know that the kitchen was being renamed ‘Mama Robertina’s Kitchen’. Shelter Manager Sandra expressed, “Mama Robertina you are staying with us. Every time new or old staff come here, they will always remember you because you are part of us. Although we are not going to see you every day, we are going to have you in our hearts.”
Many say that “the kitchen is the heart of the home” – similarly, the Christie community can say that Robertina was the iconic heart dedicated to providing meals to our Refugee families for many years! No longer just a microwave, Robertina helped transform the kitchen into a place of love.