by FEONA HEBRIO
Joey Abrenilla’s story is not out of the ordinary. An occupational therapist by profession, Abrenilla left the Philippines nine years ago in search of better opportunities in Canada.
Born and raised in a Catholic household, Abrenilla says he learned early about the value of faith and community. He knew that in order for him to adapt in his new home he needed to be part of something bigger than himself.
Abrenilla became an active member of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Toronto’s Eglinton and Bathurst area, home to a large number of Filipino immigrants. He began as a choir member in the parish and two years later, was asked by parish priest Fr. Ben Ebcas Jr. to be the youth co-ordinator.
When Ebcas became the spiritual director for the Archdiocese Filipino Catholic Mission (AFCM), he tapped Abrenilla to become AFCM’s youth co-ordinator for the entire province of Ontario, having seen his passion for youth and social issues.
In 2007, Abrenilla joined Singles for Christ (SFC) Ministry and became one of the effective and passionate leaders of the ministry. He then became the Answering the Cry of the Poor (ANCOP) co-ordinator SFC Toronto North Chapter. In 2012, he became the Youth Director for the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF).
At the Oct. 27 municipal and school board elections, Abrenilla is one among many hopefuls aiming to get a seat in the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB). In Ward 5, where he is running, Abrenilla promises programs that will strengthen Catholic core values, student competency and transparency in the TCDSB.
Q: How has your experience as an immigrant helped and equipped you to run for the Toronto Catholic District School Board?
Adjusting was quite difficult. I needed to look for ways to keep me going and ways to help myself adjust. I’m [the] type of person who needs a community to start with. If you’re alone in this kind of country, you will definitely look for ways to have a purpose to stay.
As an immigrant, I needed a foundation and I found it by starting to get myself out there. I started volunteering to numerous organizations and been actively involved in Our Lady of Assumption Parish. It became like home to me. I met people who reminded me of home…who helped and equipped me to be suitable for the position I’m currently running for.
There are just so many things you learn from volunteering and leading people towards a common goal. You’ll learn of service. You’ll learn things about people management and at the same time you’ll learn through other people’s experiences. I believe it is a day-to-day thing. It is as simple as you see an opportunity, you grab it and you’ll never end the day without getting something out of it.
Q: Has your being Filipino background influenced your work? If yes, in what ways?
Absolutely! My platform and my advocacies are all rooted from my values as a Catholic and as a Filipino. As a Filipino we are known to be compassionate, hospitable and accommodating. I believe I took advantage of these characteristics for me to become an effective volunteer during my early years in Toronto.
When I became the youth leader of our parish, my background helped a lot since I became someone they could easily relate to. Differences were not much of an issue since my parents raised in me in a very Catholic household. My core values as a Filipino strengthened my ties with my community and in fact opened a lot of opportunities for me…We Filipinos grew up with the concept of community and that basically encouraged me to be involved. Volunteering and sticking to my core values as a Filipino continuously opened doors for me.
Q: You mentioned about volunteer work? Are there still a lot of volunteers and/or volunteer programs within your community?
There are a lot of people willing to volunteer. The problem is not everyone is aware of the avenues where they can reach and help out. Some of them don’t even have the proper resources to do so but there are a lot of volunteers, especially Filipinos. In the church alone, you’d see them.
You know how Filipinos are. They are really involved especially in church, not to mention the fact that there are already numerous non-government organizations here in Canada that were founded by Filipinos. These organizations are coming from the same goal to build a foundation that will help immigrants and Canadians to be involved in the community.
Q: What is your perception of an ideal and effective Toronto Catholic District Board?
Transparent. As a Catholic District School Board that would mean we should be focusing on a Christ-centered Education. We have to preserve the Christianity of the school board. After all, that’s the essence of having a Catholic School, to preserve not only being a Catholic institution but in general being a Christian institution.
Q: How do you differentiate being a Catholic and being a Christian?
Being a Catholic obviously means that you are a Roman Catholic in denomination but when I say being a Christian, I was pertaining to a way of living. You believe in Christ and you may be coming from a different denomination… I believe that as long as you believe in Christ, you believe in God. I believe that’s the most important thing.
Q: You mentioned about transparency. Do you think the TCDSB suffers from a lack of transparency?
Although I’m not yet part of the board just yet, to be perfectly honest I see that what they have right now is better as compared with what they had for the last few years. Basically, we now have monthly meetings which are open to the public. They invite the public to get involved and to join in monthly meetings. Those monthly board meetings tackle budget, possible programs or even the newest curriculum that are to be implemented in schools. These monthly meetings get published for everyone to read later on.
For me, being transparent works hand in hand with info dissemination and community involvement. If people are not aware of the resources or means then transparency is not really working its full potential. My point is, these efforts to have the community engaged in board meetings are good but if information is not disseminated properly or let us say people are not empowered to take part then transparency is just really a quarter of a bigger problem.
Once elected, I want the parents and the teachers to be involved. We need them in terms of decision-making, not necessarily catering primarily to things they want but most importantly listening to their needs and the changes they want to see. They have to be part and be active in the discussions because these policies directly affect their households. To be honest, the current situation right now is that most decisions are made by the board. Parents and teachers need to be well-represented because they are the ones directly affected.
Q: As someone running for office for the first time and as someone part of the visible minority, what are the challenges and opportunities in terms of getting people to understand your cause or your platform?
As someone running for the first time, lack of experience is a challenge. You are in a position that you need to easily adapt and understand the system of the elections especially the system of the TCDSB. Every person and every background needs a different approach in terms of reaching out to them.
The opportunity and the benefit is that it encourages you to be very open-minded. It encourages me to reach out to people and ask them about their experiences and things they look for in terms of ideal governance… Reaching out and listening to these people I came up of strategies [that are] not only theory-based ones, but those that I actually got from people’s experiences.
You’ll learn a lot of things…You will be exposed to numerous ways and factors which you know will help you later on.
So the biggest challenge is that you are a neophyte. You still have no experience compared to your opponents but I turn my challenges as great advantages because they keep me more aggressive in getting my message across. It also helps me to have an open mind in terms of changes and improvements I want to offer my constituents.
As a visible minority, I think it is an advantage as I will be coming from a point of view that is relatable to the ward where I am running. I am running for Ward 5 and most of the population are Filipinos and/or mainly immigrants. This has made me relatable in many aspects because I, myself, experienced a lot of things they have experienced at some point of their lives. The only challenge here is that to encourage them to vote.
I have to be honest and I’m sorry to say this but we Filipinos are not accustomed to take our time to vote. There are instances that [Filipinos] just don’t really care and do not make the time to vote. It is such a big challenge. One day they’ll say, “I will support you and vote for you.” but the most important part is the Election Day. If they do not go out to vote then everything will just be useless.