IT HAS been said that out of the most severe trials come the greatest triumphs.
We could either become victims of circumstances, or we can turn those difficulties into stepping stones and emerge as victors.
Filipino-Canadian Tomas Avendaño Sr. has undergone severe trials in his life as an immigrant in Canada and has become a champion to his kababayans in their adoptive country, Canada.
For all he has done, Tatay Tom (as he is fondly called) has been honored by no less than President Benigno Aquino III last month, as one of the 2012 Presidential Awardees — an honor given to Filipinos overseas.
Avendaño received the Banaag Award — given to Filipino individuals overseas for their contributions in advancing the cause of overseas Filipino communities or sectors.
A member of the Multicultural Advisory Council of British Columbia, Avendaño was honored for championing the cause of newly-arrived migrants in Canada.
He has been helping immigrants adjust to their new life in Canada since 1996 through the organization he founded, the Filipino Canadian Support Services Society, now called the Multicultural Helping House Society.
Struggles as an immigrant
Born in Capiz, Philippines, Tom was an elected two-term Pasay City councilor before he and his family immigrated to Canada in 1982.
Like many Pinoy immigrants at that time, Tom did not find it easy to build a good life in Canada. Finding a job was hard; companies were constantly looking for someone with local experience.
Tom was often “not qualified” or “over qualified.” To survive, the former councilor worked at McDonald’s for ten years, starting as a janitor, who mopped floors.
That decade prepared Tom for great work ahead. He said that “work builds character. Any work is honorable if it is accomplished with one’s best abilities and capabilities.”
When life became better, Tom opened a restaurant in Surrey. He and his wife then became active in the community.
They helped in fundraising events and organized traditional Filipino religious festivals like Todos Los Santos, Flores de Mayo and the Santo Niño celebration in their parish.
Helping kababayans integrate
Then, in the mid-1990s, Tom started to do something about a long-held desire in his heart — to help new Pinoy immigrants adjust to their new home in Canada.
Believing that “someone just has to do it”, Tom founded the Filipino Canadian Support Services Society (FCSSS) in 1996, with the help of several other community leaders.
Tom recalled that he has been a victim in Canada when he first immigrated, having no idea about the laws, rules, and policies of his new home.
Since nobody helped him, Tatay Tom decided he will help others. He opened a home in 1996 for FCSSS and a drop-in center in Vancouver that served the Filipino community. Since their work began to expand to serve all cultural communities, the FCSSS was renamed the Multicultural Helping House Society in 2001.
Various government and community organizations helped MHHS raise money for a one-stop center. The three levels of government – federal, provincial and the City of Vancouver –helped fund the expansion of the main center which is now a four-storey building.
MHHS programs include the Caregivers / Temporary Foreign Workers Program,Youth Program, Seniors Program, Host Mentoring Program, Fast Track to Employment for Skilled Immigrants, Skills Connect for Construction and Settlement Services.
Filipinos can stay at the MHHS facility for 10 days for free, getting services ranging from Respite Housing for newly-arrived immigrants and workers, to Counseling and Training services.
Support services include settlement and employment assistance, as well as programs for the youth, the seniors and families.
Father to Filipinos in Canada
For all his hard work, Tatay Tom has become well-known as a father to the Filipinos in Canada.
He has a long list of awards to his name — given to him by the government, business groups and civic organizations — in recognition of his undertakings and achievements.
One of the most prestigious is the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal conferred to Tom in the capital city of Ottawa on February 2012 by The Right Honorable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada and in representation of the Queen.
Tom was the sole Filipino-Canadian among 60 medal recipients recognized for their significant contribution to a particular province, territory, region or community in Canada. He was recognized for “his commitment to helping new immigrants on Canada’s West Coast to integrate into Canadian society.”
“The recipients who are honored by this medal have made Canada better,” Governor General Johnston stated. “Individually, they have improved the well-being of many in our communities, and together, they have helped to create a smarter, more caring nation. They represent a mosaic of individual experiences and accomplishments. Like Her Majesty, they inspire others to take up the call to service.”
When he was mopping floors in McDonalds, Tatay Tom could have chosen to just give up and become bitter about life’s adversities. Instead, his trials became learning experiences and gave him the motivation to serve his kababayans and countless others.
(LA Weekend January 19-22, 2013 Sec. A pg.10)