As a couple, what do you do when one person loves to explore other cultures, and the other doesn’t enjoy travel? You bring the world to your door. That’s what Bill and Sue Smienk have done nearly every week for the past four years.
It began when Sue Smienk, a research technician at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, started Friday Afternoon Conversations in English at the Smienks (FACES). Bill Smienk, chair of the Lethbridge College School of Engineering Technologies, initially went along for the ride, but today’s he’s fully engaged in this unique exploration of language and culture. On any given Friday, five to 25 English language learners from around the world drop in. Some are young adults attending college. Others have careers in the city.
“It’s so amazing,” Bill Smienk says. “We’re so thankful to be part of it, getting to know them and watching them grow as people.” Bill Smienk, whose parents were immigrants, knows how much his family benefitted from the support of others. Sue Smienk took a course at the college on teaching English as a second language. It inspired her to provide more opportunities for individuals to practise their English.
They hope others may be inspired to help in their own way. There is no shortage of learners. The college’s international student program doubled in one year to 471 in Fall 2018. That’s not including students in English as a Second Language(ESL) programs.
Visitors to the home can experience Bill Smienk’s passion project — an HO (1:87) scale model train layout that dominates the basement. His guest book has been signed by people from all over the world. The afternoons might be filled with presentations about home countries or exploring aspects of Canadian culture. Some guests pop by once or twice. Others are regulars. The Smienks say they have been treated to dance and drum lessons, made friends around the globe and gained invaluable cultural understanding from their guests.
Camila Santos, now a career and academic advisor at Lethbridge College, accompanied her husband Vini Illana to the Smienks’ home at the urging of a friend. The couple had just arrived in Lethbridge from Brazil. “We come from a country where people don’t open their doors to strangers,” she says. “I thought, are we intruding?” That was more than three years ago. They’ve been going back ever since.
“They are our home away from home,” Camila says. “Bill and Sue let our family know we’re good. They understand what it’s like to have their kids away and they take that worry away for our families.” Sue Smienk says the couple has learned as much from FACES as the people learning English.
“You’re investing in our lives,” she tells a typical Friday gathering that sees people from Brazil, Mexico and Italy hanging out in her kitchen. “Bill and I are so blessed to have you in our lives.”