Tom and Maureen Staples own a beautiful, two-storey home in downtown Barrie. Tom is from Canada, Maureen is from Australia, and both have dual citizenship. They have seven children. The five oldest are all grown up with busy lives in Australia, where the family resided for 28 years. The two youngest live in Canada, and one lives at home; she was on holiday in Australia, when we visited.
The Staples have hosted several international students through the Homestay program and it’s clear from the moment you walk into their home that they’re kind and welcoming people. “We were so used to having children around – and a full house. It was just a no brainer,” explains Maureen. “I get to have new daughters and new sons, from all over the world.”
The Staples are currently hosting two Georgian students.
Aurora Abigail Gavilanes Vargas is a 22-year-old from Quito, Ecuador. She’s studying business and hopes to complete an international business graduate certificate.
Johanna Ogliastri Herrera, a 30-year-old from Bogota, Colombia, is a trained veterinarian (she performed surgery on a $1-million horse in Kentucky) and hopes to start a sustainable farm. She’s studying Environmental Technology with the hopes of eventually obtaining her master’s.
Aurora, Johanna and the Staples typically make their own breakfasts and lunches, but sit down together for dinner. Because the Staples were on holiday when we stopped by, everyone was able to enjoy breakfast on the back deck.
It’s clear that Aurora, Johanna and the Staples operate as a family. They tease each other and there’s a sense of comfort and ease in the house.
“Somebody needs to make coffee,” says Tom.
“I don’t know how!” says Aurora.
“Ask the Colombian,” jokes Maureen.
Aurora met Johanna through her co-op job in the Segal International Centre. The two became fast friends. Aurora has been staying with the Staples for two years. Johanna has been there for a little over a month.
“I feel like this family is like my culture – we get along very well,” says Aurora.
Johanna agrees. “I haven’t been too long here, but it feels like a year. I like being here. It’s so comfortable.”
Both Aurora and Johanna miss their families at home, but keep in contact through apps like Skype and WhatsApp.
Aurora keeps a family portrait, laser-etched in glass. “I talk with them almost every day,” she says. “And I see them every six months or eight months.”
“My dad bought this for me when I was born,” says Johanna. “I’ve had it for 30 years. Mr. Frog,” she laughs.
Johanna talk to her family often, but believes “If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you don’t experience life.” She focuses on enjoying the moment and practising gratitude, every day.
We visited the Staples the day after Johanna’s 30th birthday. Tom had prepared a cinnamon cake. Aurora found candles shaped like a one and an eight.
“So you are turning 18!” she laughs, as she placed them on the cake.
“I’ve met so many people from other countries, here,” says Aurora. “I have friends from Canada. At first, I hugged them and I was so confused because they were uncomfortable.”
“In Latin America, everyone hugs each other, but not in Canada,” explains Johanna.
“But the first time I came here, Maureen hugged me and I was like “ahhhhhhhh” – it was so nice,” says Aurora.
“When you’re living in my house, you’re family,” says Maureen.
When we asked Tom what he liked best about hosting international students he says: “The best part is the interaction – talking about different cultures.”
“We really like showing people around,” adds Maureen. “We’ve been to a family cottage. We do day trips.”
“We took them to a hockey game,” says Tom. “We also went to a Jays’ game.”
The family dog, Pep, is a beloved mutt. It’s clear Aurora and Johanna love him, too.
“It’s a Canadian tradition that you cut your own cake,” Aurora says after Johanna blows out her candles.
For Aurora, the move to Canada was a big step toward independence. “It helped me a lot,” she explains. “I was, like, spoiled. I didn’t know how to do groceries. I couldn’t cook rice. I’m now more mature, I guess.” Aurora’s first part-time job was at a fast food franchise, which she loved. She then landed a co-op at the international centre, working at the front desk and organizing cultural outings for students.
“It was a bit of a coup, to get that job,” explains Tom with a note of pride. “There were a lot of applicants.”
Now, Aurora is the unofficial social organizer for many students at the international centre. “I organize meetings because I know how it feels to know nobody,” she says.
“I love this place,” says Aurora. “I love it too,” says Johanna.
Both women are thinking of getting tattoos to mark their Canadian experiences. Aurora is looking at a maple leaf, Johanna a white fox or a wolf.
“When I came here, I thought maple leafs are orange – always orange,” says Aurora. “So I asked them, where are the maple leafs?”
“And then I would point to the green trees and say “There they are!” Tom laughs.