In 1992, 28-year-old Etsuko Fujita came to Vancouver from Japan alone on a one-year ‘working holiday’ visa. On her first day in the new city, she serendipitously made a very special friend. While in the check-in line at the YMCA, she began talking to a Japanese boy standing in front of her who, incidentally, was visiting on the same visa! They formed a friendship and talked all through their first meal in Canada at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Having no idea they would share much more than a plate of pasta, they married the following year and decided to settle in Vancouver. Etsuko and her husband have been together since.
A NEW CALLING
Etsuko maintained a marketing career for 24 years but was laid off in 2016. Unlike most people who are laid off, she welcomed this change. She was tired of sitting in an office all day, putting together monthly plans and coordinating productions. “I thought I might need some rest but I wasn’t intending to retire,” she clarified. She realized she wanted to do something for the community and being laid off was the push she didn’t know she needed.
Etsuko joined the Semiahmoo Pottery Club in South Surrey to engulf herself in creativity while connecting with her community. In yet another instance of chance, a member of the pottery club mentioned that his mother had recently moved into Westminster House Retirement Community. This piqued Etsuko’s curiosity, who was still searching for a rewarding career. Researching the facility led to a career search, which brought her to Stenberg’s Therapeutic Recreation Assistant information session. Here, Etsuko met Ken Biehl, a former filmmaker turned Stenberg Therapeutic Recreation alum who now works as the Therapeutic Recreation Manager at Westminster House. She started volunteering there and fell in love with working with elders.
Spending time with older adults at Westminster House reminded her of the wonderful moments she shared with her grandmother, who passed away at the age of 96. When Etsuko was little, they would do fun activities together like travelling and drawing. Her grandmother lived in Japan with Etsuko’s aunt, so they didn’t spend much time together in her later years but whenever she went to visit, they would have so much fun. “I was always my grandma’s girl,” she reminisced. “The last time I remember her, we were doing crafts but she didn’t want me to do it for her. Instead, she tried to teach me how to do it.”
Working with older adults was a natural fit for Etsuko, as was choosing Stenberg. “I had already decided to take Stenberg’s program when I started volunteering because I thought it fit with who I am,” she said. She graduated with academic distinction, although her success did not come easily. “When I started the program, it felt like there was a big mountain in front of me.”
The program involves much reading, which was difficult for Etsuko who felt she was a slow reader and lacked confidence in her English language skills. She spent hours perfecting her written assignments and took advantage of the academic support services available to all Stenberg students. Despite her difficulties, she went above and beyond to push herself to do well as a student. She also continued volunteering three days a week at Westminster House and Nikkei Seniors Health Care and Housing Society throughout her program. The simultaneous work experience helped her understand the course material better. “Every week I learned something I was experiencing as a volunteer. It made me more interested in the program.”
Etsuko’s compassion for the career and older adults was apparent to her colleagues, supervisors and Stenberg instructors. Westminster House hired her as a casual employee before program completion. Ken, now Etsuko’s boss, said, “She treats residents, coworkers and volunteers with respect and dignity and maintains a positive attitude in the workplace. I often see her between programs sitting or kneeling beside a resident engaged in conversation. She needs very little guidance in this area because it comes so naturally.”
Etsuko loves her new career. “We chat, do craft and arts and make calendars. We have lunch together, we have music, we have games,” she said with a confident smile and a sparkle in her eyes. Therapeutic Recreation fits perfectly with her zest for life, love for art and empathy for elders. Every smile she puts on an elder’s face reminds her of her grandmother’s smile.
For further information on Stenberg College’s Therapeutic Recreation program, fill out the form and a member of our advisory team will get in touch with your shortly.