Rossbina Nathoo had no idea what she would be getting into the day she popped into an Elder Friendly office, looking for a social network for her aging mother.
Nathoo, a 52-year-old Muslim Ismaili refugee, was concerned for her mother and other Ismaili seniors in her area. She quickly learned that if she wanted a program she would have to start one.
And so she did, quitting her job as an airline ticket agent and throwing herself into organizing a group with the help of a variety of resources in northeast Calgary.
“I had always volunteered when my children were growing up. My passion had always been with children, youth and women,” says Nathoo, mother of two grown boys. “I had no idea I would be working with seniors.”
She says in Calgary there are about 9,000 Ismailis, a Muslim sect led by the Aga Khan who is celebrating his 50th year as the group’s spiritual leader.
In acknowledgement of his golden jubilee, Nathoo says the Aga Khan has asked all Ismailis to give of their time and knowledge.
The birth of her seniors’ group fit right in with his request.
One year ago, with the help from Heart of the Northeast Community Solutions Resource Centre, the Village Square Library and Leisure Centre and Elder Friendly, Nathoo and a few friends sent out printed flyers and personally invited every senior they knew, asking them to attend a meeting at the Village Square Library. They hoped for 40 people.
“I don’t know if it was the free food, but we had 100 people come,” she says, still astounded at the enthusiastic response. “Fortunately, the leisure centre next door let us move to a bigger room upstairs.”
Because many of the Ismaili seniors speak the Indian dialects of Gujarati and Kutchi, translators helped Nathoo and community development workers compile a wish list of activities from the lively group at that first meeting.
“We asked them how we could help better their lifestyle. The most popular suggestions were for computer literacy courses, arts and crafts and day trips,” she says.
Knowing she’d have to “strike while the iron was hot,” Nathoo arranged for computer classes at the library, English as a Second Language classes and fitness at the leisure centre. Each program runs for five Tuesday afternoons in a row, after which members can cycle into another class. The program has extended into arts and crafts, aquasize and cultural dancing with waiting lists for every activity.
“I had several ladies who were keen to take swimming but didn’t even have bathing suits,” Nathoo says.
She has volunteer monitors who have miraculously appeared to help for every program.
A user-fee is charged, but in some instances, Nathoo has subsidized programming costs out of her own pocket. At the end of each five-week session, a celebration lunch is held and certificates of achievement awarded.
Lynda Cossins, community development worker for Calgary Family Services Elder Friendly program, helped Nathoo with her first meeting and describes her as being a visionary.
“She’s determined — she doesn’t give up when she encounters problems and she really cares,” says Cossins. “A group of us in community development have nominated her for a Calgary Award — that’s how highly we think of Rossbina. It was a 14-page nomination and it wasn’t hard to put together.”
Nathoo’s group calls themselves F.O.C.U.S. (Friendship, Opportunity, Community Involvement, Unity and Synergy) on Seniors.
“Up until now, we have been a private community because we have been a community of persecution. I’ve taken a big risk — I’ve spread my wings a little bit getting to know everyone,” says Nathoo.
“Calgary’s a great place to live right now.”
Nathoo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to nominate an outstanding community contributor for Calgary Builder recognition, e-mail Neighbours Editor Claire Young at email@example.com or call 235-7564.