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Recreation for all: starting a new trend

It all started with one staff member at Harry Jerome rec centre who spoke Farsi.

It all started with one staff member at Harry Jerome rec centre who spoke Farsi.

Realizing how it's often difficult for newcomers to Canada to access the rec centre to stay fit, Vida Sandoughdar started informally offering welcome tours to Iranian immigrants for whom English was a challenge.

That spawned first a set of multi-lingual information guides, then a language program with tours in four different languages.

Now, a UBC study will examine the results to see how they could do better and if that program could be a model for the rest of the country to help immigrants live healthy, active lives.

"For over 10 years we've had staff do tours connecting with new immigrants through the multicultural society bringing in groups of people to bring our facilities, really lead by one staff person," said Anne Rogers, spokeswoman for the recreation commission. "We saw the efficacy of that and how it made people feel more welcome."

In 2009, the rec commission received a $25,000 grant from the Union of B.C.

Municipalities, and turned the unofficial tours and guides into an official package. They launched four welcome evenings in different languages - Cantonese, Farsi, Korean and Tagalog - with the help of volunteers and immigrant organizations on the North Shore, videotaped them and made the videos available on the website. At the end of the tour, participants got to try a quick fitness class.

"That was really neat because it actually gave them a taste of what our instructors are like and what it's like to work with the music," said Rogers, adding each evening attracted between 18 and 40 people. "That kind of experience is a real equalizer, it brings everyone together."

Following that, volunteers would take hours at Harry Jerome as welcome hosts, who could direct people to services whether they're new to the country or have lived here their whole lives.

These programs are important, said Wendy Frisby, the leadresearcher for the UBC study, because while immigrants often arrive in Canada in better shape than the average Canadian-born person, they tend to become less healthy after the move, and this is especially true for women.

"There's been quite a few studies showing that but very few coming at it from the perspectives from the immigrants themselves," she said. "That's what we're trying to do with this study."

As well, immigrants often come from countries that don't have a recreation centre system similar to what exists in Canada, and if English is a problem they won't seek out information about it.

They have already begun interviews with staff at Harry Jerome, and will begin

TESSA HOLLOWAY . THOLLOWAY@NSNEWS.COM

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