Grad creates non-profit to support African-Canadian community

Photo by Kim Mah

You might expect a geography major to be more concerned with rock formations than people. But that hardly describes Nsimire Gisele Mubalama. The recent graduate of SFU’s Community Capacity Building Certificate program cares deeply about her community, and has founded a non-profit organization to support both socially isolated African-Canadian seniors and the struggling families of single parents.

Taking a holistic view of community, Gisele readily explains the connection between her past environmental studies and her current work: “When we talk about the environment, that includes everything: health, community development, the economy, many things around us.”

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gisele began a new life in Canada 13 years ago. Combining school with caring for two young children, she completed her degree at SFU in 2018. After graduation, she and her husband conceived a third child, and the need to care for their children full time delayed Gisele from launching a paid career. But as her kids grew older, she began to feel ready to get out and find her place in the world.

“I studied to help my community and improve my life, so I started thinking about what I can do,” she says. “Could I create my own opportunity for a job, or help as a volunteer?”

As chance would have it, in 2019, she discovered the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors Program and the funding it provided for programs aimed at supporting seniors and their communities.

Gisele had long observed that many African-Canadian seniors in her community didn’t take advantage of the resources around them or participate in local activities and events. She saw an opportunity, and with a grant from New Horizons, founded the African-Canadian Seniors and Single Parents Association (ACSSPA) in 2020. Based in Burnaby, the organization now offers a variety of activities to help seniors overcome social isolation while also supporting single parents and their families through educational and other services.

In need of leadership and project skills to help grow her new organization, Gisele applied to the Community Capacity Building program at SFU. But she admits she almost dropped out after seeing that the first two weeks of classes were devoted to storytelling.

“I wanted to learn about planning projects, not telling stories,” she laughs. “But I understand now why telling stories is important. It is a way to communicate with others, to let others know about you and to learn about them, to create friendships and find ways to collaborate.”

Fortunately, Gisele didn’t quit the program and went on to learn other valuable lessons about developing projects and writing proposals. In fact, her newly honed proposal writing skills earned her funding for three projects, including a digital literacy program for her seniors.

Another project, creating mask-sewing workshops for seniors as a way to learn new skills and build social connection, won a Community Engagement Award from SFU worth $2,000. Gisele also caught the attention of the United Way, which is now supporting ACSSPA’s new community garden project in Burnaby and the seniors’ digital technology program.

Along with the practical knowledge she gained in the SFU program, Gisele says she appreciated the sense of community it brought her.

“When you feel like you’re alone, you can connect with other people and with teachers and guest speakers as well,” she explains. “I learned how to make friendships, how to collaborate, how to ask for help when you need it, how to provide services to others when they need it, and to share ideas.”

Gisele adds that many good things came together for her during her time in the program. Aside from the project funding she obtained, she landed a temporary position with Frontier College as a homework club coordinator, which allowed her to implement the teaching and organizational skills she’d been learning. She was also accepted into the education program at UBC, where she’ll prepare for a future career as a high school teacher. Gisele’s goal is to teach French and geography, using her passion for helping others through sharing of knowledge. A teaching career, she adds, will also provide her with the security and flexibility to continue and expand her work at ACSSPA.  

“I’m very grateful for being part of the SFU program,” she says. “It opened the doors for everything I need to do.”

By Kim Mah