When Cristina Balamban immigrated to Calgary from the Philippines, she struggled to find a job despite having a master’s degree in human resources.

Volunteering gave her the experience she needed to become the human resources manager at the Calgary Distress Centre. It is a developing, volunteering program that gives back to those that have helped her make it to where she is today.

Balamban never thought about leaving her country; however, her husband had dreams of living in a western country and moved to Calgary in 2007.

Balamban and her children stayed in the Philippines for another three years while waiting for their permanent residency.

“That really motivated me [to know] this is what I wanted,” says Balamban. “Because I saw my two girls, at night they were crying, because they wanted to see their father.”

After arriving in Calgary, in June 2010, Balamban started applying for jobs, quickly finding a position as a Starbucks barista.

Although she found employment so soon, Balamban believed finding a job in her field would be easy.

“I thought because I had the background coming here that it won’t be hard for me because I speak English. I have the educational background. I have so many skills. I have a master’s degree. I have so many things to offer,” she says.

However, when she started sending out applications, she wasn’t receiving any replies, and soon realized that her lack of Canadian work experience was holding her back.

While attending a newcomers’ orientation, Balamban learned that volunteering could be considered a form of Canadian work experience.

In September 2010 Balamban started volunteering at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) in their Filipino Community Development program — she became the southeast quadrant volunteer coordinator.

Balamban entered CIWA’s office administration training program in January 2011 however, because of her extensive experience she was discouraged from doing so.

“We thought she was overqualified; we thought she could get a job on her own without spending months in the program, because it’s quite a long commitment to take the program,” says Balamban’s career coach, Noreen Sieb.

Balamban says that even though her experience and education looked good on paper, she knew something was missing.

According to Sieb, Balamban excelled in the program.

“She looked very competent in the things that we had her do,” says Sieb. “She could pick things up quickly, even in terms of noticing cultural things.”

Balamban noticed the lessons she learned in the program were key in helping her know how to work in the Canadian workplace.

“I thought because I had the background coming here that it won’t be hard for me”- Cristina Balamban

“It helped us because every lesson was something new. They focused on the Canadian workplace, and they taught us how Canadians work.”

The concept of small talk in particular was new to her.

“It’s funny because in the Philippines when someone says, ‘How are you?’ oh my goodness, expect that you will hear the whole story of my life. People always do that, and I was like “Why do all these people ask me ‘How are you?’” she says. “It’s like I’m opening the whole story of my life, but it doesn’t need to be like that.”

After completing her practicum with the program, Balamban started working for Theater Calgary as a fund development assistant. One of her co-workers, Diane Jones Konihowski, truly admired how much potential she really had.

“When I got to know Balamban, I said ‘Give me your resume.’ And I looked at her resume, and she had a master’s degree, and many years’ experience at a national corporation in the Philippines. I just looked at her and I thought, ‘Wow,’” says Jones Konihowski

When Jones Konihowski moved on to work for the Calgary Distress Centre, she knew Balamban would be a great fit at that location. .

“I told my executive director, ‘I know an amazing woman that I’d like to see in this agency.’ So we encouraged her to come over here,” Jones Konihowski says.

When she first went to the distress centre as their senior office administrator in March 2014, Balamban didn’t know as much about the organization as she does now. However, she soon realized just how important it is.

“When I started working in the reception, and learning the services that [the distress centre] provides to the community, I said, ‘This is very in line with my values.’”

Balamban was promoted as human resources manager at the centre in December 2015.

In that job, Balamban played a key role in connecting CIWA with the distress centre. The centre has now hosted practicums for 10 of CIWA’s office administration clients. Four of those clients were later hired by the distress centre into full-time positions.

“We just needed to provide them a valuable experience and I think [the distress centre] can, but in return these are highly professional women they can do the work at the reception, and more,” says Balamban.

The centre is also hosting clients from CIWA’s Link to Success program.

Balamban says that the co-operation of the two agencies was important to her because she promised herself that she would always give back to the CIWA.

“They really touched me.”

Editor’s note: Cristina Balamban left the distress centre to become the human resources and volunteer services manager at the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth


Editor: Abby LaRocque | alarocque@cjournal.ca

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