Kathy Thomas

Building a Welcoming and Inclusive Community

When Elena Goubanova and her family arrived in Ottawa from Kazakhstan in 1998, she felt completely lost. There was also the culture shock of learning how things work in Canada — how to rent an apartment, register children for schools, book medical appointments and find a job. What she didn’t realize is that she would quickly meet a woman who would be instrumental in making her new home a more welcoming community.

Shortly after arriving in the Westboro neighbourhood of the nation’s capital, Elena introduced herself to a few neighbours. The very next day, she was surprised to find a welcome basket on her doorstop. Ever since that day, her neighbour, Kathy Thomas, has become Elena’s guardian angel, a close friend and a role model.

“Kathy helped my oldest daughter, a teenager at the time, to find her first job,” explains Elena. “Her husband recommended an agency when I was searching for a job. Time and time again they and their children extended a helping hand for us in the journey of adaptation to our new life.”

“It is not only about me and my family,” remarks Elena. “Kathy opens the doors of her house to people from all walks of life. I met many other newcomers to Ottawa from different countries and cultures at her fundraising Pink Parties for breast cancer. Kathy creates a welcoming and inclusive community around her and we all become friends. Her heart and soul imbue such important values as treating everybody with unconditional respect and giving back to the community.”

Kathy’s track record of community support and giving includes volunteering as a director for the Rideau Valley Conservation Foundation, helping kids in an English as a Second Language program, organizing pizza lunches in the local school, and supporting international development through her past volunteer involvement with WaterCan. Kathy was the inspiration for Elena’s own involvement in helping and engaging refugees and immigrants with local networks, professional associations, civic action and leadership initiatives.

When meeting Elena and Kathy you are struck by the pure joy they exude in each other’s company. “I feel like I want to give her a hug over Zoom,” says Kathy. Although Elena and her family eventually moved to another neighbourhood, they are still close friends. The pandemic has presented challenges, but they share a love of nature and often go for walks together, admiring people’s gardens. When a major storm devastated Ottawa recently, Kathy rode her bike over to Elena’s house to check on her.

There is admiration in both directions.

“It takes a huge amount of courage and it’s not easy to move to a new country,” says Kathy. “Elena is not one to complain. She has aspirations and experienced challenges when she had to start over again, but she was always learning and positive. Elena has a great sense of humour. We can be talking about politics or family and we end up laughing. There is so much to gain from friendship. You give a little of yourself and you get so much in return. ”

“I don’t have enough words to describe my family’s gratitude for their genuine openness, hospitality, friendship and generosity,” says Elena. “The welcoming attitude of this family defined in many ways the success my family achieved in establishing ourselves in the local community.”

Clearly both Kathy and Elena are now working towards building a more welcoming and inclusive community.