CITY Section
C3 THE OTTAWA CITIZEN Monday, Oct 22, 2001

Point of View - Volunteer Work
This program made us tevevsion stars - and new friends

It's one thing to sit and watch. It's quite another to get involved. I'd volunteered to join the PACE 2000 International Foundation without knowing what it was. I'd heard it wanted a radio researcher, and figured I could research anything.

When I met the president, Dr. Marie-Madeleine Bernard, she explained that it stood for Programs for Autonomy and Communication for the Elderly. The organization reaches out to seniors, who often remain an untapped resource because they are restricted in their movements and opportunities to interact with others. It also encourages intergenerational communication, uniting seniors with children, young people and immigrants too.

Before I researched anything, I'd have to become familiar with the programs they offer. My first assignment was to find PACE 2000's office at the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre, one of several locations it has in the national capital region.

I'd met several other volunteers, who were uniformly young and enthusiastic. I'm not young and, as I approached the main entrance, I wasn't feeling particularly enthusiastic. I arrived early and waited for Josée. She's a young woman on the verge of becoming an occupational therapist, who handled the details on the Perley side.

Today's program was to feature seniors and immigrant children playing Hangman and other games so the children could improve their English and have a good time. As I stood there, I thought the office was a trifle small for any kind of program. And where were the kids? When Josée arrived and opened the office, she pointed to a TV monitor on a stand. "That's how we link up with the children," she said. A PACE 2000 video-conferencing station, with simplified access for frail seniors, enables those at the Perley to reach people in the other locations whom they'd never meet otherwise. They can also see themselves on the TV through an inset square on the screen.

As Josée got everything ready, she explained that the children were at the Catholic Immigration Centre. Position yourself in front of the camera, and the show can go on. Well, it could when the stars got there. The number of Perley residents who take part varies, but Ken Parnell finds time to participate every week. He appeared shortly, ready for another round of Hangman. But it was not to be

Liane, a physiotherapy student and PACE 2000's volunteer at the immigration centre, came on the monitor to say today's children, two girls from Iraq and one from Sudan, didn't know enough English to play the game. Encouraged by Liane and Josée. the three girls, Ken and I introduced ourselves to each other. Although it was the first time I'd met anybody on a monitor, I discovered that video- conferencing creates a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in which strangers can meet with- out being face-to-face.

Next, the resourceful Josée suggested that Ken and I take turns showing the girls pictures of birds, animals, and flowers to see if they could identify them. Ken and I divided a stack of pictures and practised holding them in front of the camera. He was a pro at it but the girls giggled as I repeatedly put half a robin or half a deer on the screen. Eventually we got our timing down, and the girls stared at each image, shouting "swan!", "tiger!" or "bear!' But they were stumped by a bunch of grapes. I said, "It's a bunch of grapes," which made them more confused. "Just say the word," advised Josée; "Grapes, " said I. "Watermelon" was another struggle. Have you ever tried to define a watermelon to some- one who's never seen it before?

When we ran out of pictures, we reviewed the ones they'd missed. This time. the girls got every one right. After we waved our good- byes, Josée turned off the cam- era. "The other fellows ask me why I come here every week," said Ken. "I try to tell them. There are 450 of us here." I get the impression that he felt that other Perley residents could benefit from this kind of experience.
For these people only videoconferencing can jump the barriers of age and culture and create this kind of intimacy through distance.

As I left, saying so long to Josée and Ken. I realized that I'd made a new friend and gained an insight into the challenges young immigrants face in Canada.

George Lamb is a teacher who lives in Ottawa.

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