From Kenya to Vancouver Island: Irene Jesso’s marathon journey to improve the lives of marginalized communities
By Brian Helberg, Communications Officer
The tiny island village of Alert Bay, B.C., is over 14,000 km from Kenya. But for Kenyan immigrant Irene Jesso, this remote community is now home.
Irene and her family moved to Vancouver Island after she graduated from Douglas College in 2020 with a Bachelor of Social Work to help struggling families in Alert Bay, working with K’wak’walat’si Child and Family Services.
“Children should always have access to food, shelter, education and medical attention. When I see that that’s not always the case in many communities, it breaks my heart,” says Irene. “Understanding the effect of power — and powerlessness — is key when working with marginalized communities. So is knowing you can amplify someone’s voice, and advocate for their rights and needs. That is what I am doing in Alert Bay.”
Irene is a registered social worker with the BC College of Social Workers and a qualified SAFE home study practitioner. Acquiring the skills necessary to deal with complex and sensitive situations has been a lifelong journey for Irene. She learned the initial lessons during her youth in Kenya.
Born and raised on the opposite side of the world from British Columbia, Irene never imagined that one day she would be living in Canada and fulfilling her dream of becoming a social worker. While Irene herself grew up with the privilege of a healthy, happy home, she saw the suffering in her community. She has carried these memories with her throughout her life.
“Life in Kenya can be harsh for some children,” says Irene. “Child welfare is not as we know it here in Canada. I grew up seeing suffering, innocent young children suffering. There are children who are born in the streets, live in the streets, and grow up in the streets. They have children of their own in the streets and the cycle continues. Seeing that level of suffering was soul-crushing, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Irene was 19 years old when she began building an orphanage in Kenya. She not only helped physically construct the orphanage, but also assisted in raising the funds to build it.
“Social work has been a passion for me since I was a teenager,” says Irene. “Whether it was talking to people, counselling people, helping people or fundraising – I discovered while building the orphanage that I was doing what I love.”
This experience shaped her perspective as a person and further cemented her desire to work with underserved communities. On a daily basis, Irene uses empathy and generosity – two traits she learned to harness while creating change in her home country.
“I remember realizing during my childhood that if you are in a fortunate position in life and have the means, you should try to help less fortunate people,” says Irene. “My passion for using my knowledge and skills to improve the lives of marginalized people started during my youth. It has continued to grow throughout my life.”
Read more: “This Social Work alum wants her master’s degree to help her create systemic change”
Breaking through the wall
Irene touched down on Canadian soil for the first time in her 20s as part of an international mission program. She initially resided in Kelowna before finding her way to Vancouver. After researching local colleges and universities, Irene decided that Douglas College’s Social Work program was right for her.
“I know in my heart that my education at Douglas College was a gift,” says Irene. “We did case studies in class that prepared us for the real world by letting us work with real people in real situations. My instructors gave me the confidence that I could be a social worker and succeed in creating positive change.”
Like many of her classmates, Irene found her motivation to enrol at Douglas in the chance to engage in practical learning opportunities. She wanted to get training from professional social workers and get hands-on experience during her practicums.
Irene spent over 1,000 hours working at two practicums with Coast Mental Health. After graduating, Irene got her wish to become a social worker in a remote Canadian community after securing a position in Alert Bay.
Hitting her stride
Irene’s initial destination of choice was Nunavut, but Alert Bay proved to be perfect for her. Situated off the northern coast of Vancouver Island and home to fewer than 1,500 people, Alert Bay and its residents face major challenges. These include food shortages and a lack of affordable housing.
“The more I learned about marginalization, intergenerational trauma and the current effect of colonization in Canada, the more my desire to work in a remote community grew,” says Irene. “The population I work with in Alert Bay is over 90 percent Indigenous. I feel privileged to be able to work with this population because it’s an opportunity to honour their identity, their traditions and their backgrounds.”
With limited resources available to the residents of Alert Bay, Irene’s duties vary greatly depending on the day. The skills she acquired in her Douglas days have come in handy, as she deals with many challenging hurdles: environmental, geographic and – for the residents of Alert Bay – personal.
“I am often dealing with home study assessments for caregivers and foster parents. The goal is to ensure child safety when a youth is placed in a home, which involves interviewing families and assessing situations,” says Irene. “We also do a lot of preventative work, particularly related to food shortages and inflation issues. Both problems have hit Alert Bay hard. So, we try to help those who have been affected.”
Living in Alert Bay has been an incredibly rewarding experience for Irene and her family. Though she has had to deal with challenges associated with uprooting her family and moving to a small island, her desire to help marginalized people in underserved communities made joining K’wak’walat’si Child and Family Services the perfect choice for her.
“I would encourage more social workers and other professionals to dedicate a few years after their graduation to work in remote communities,” says Irene. “You learn so much, and it challenges your skills. That’s how you grow. You become part of a greater community and work closely with other professionals. It’s incredibly rewarding to feel you are making a positive impact in people’s lives.”
Read more: “A sense of community: How this Social Work student is advocating for students inside and outside the classroom”
Irene’s journey from Kenya to Douglas College to Alert Bay has been more of a marathon than a sprint. But her positive attitude and determination have allowed her to achieve her lifelong dream of bettering the lives of people living in a remote community.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I believe in living the talk – having the strength to take on challenges but always making sure you are standing by the values you profess,” says Irene. “I have always been motivated to accomplish my goals, both personally and professionally.
“I know one day I will go back home to Kenya and give back to the community, but I love my life in Alert Bay right now. I’m living my dream as a social worker.”
Visit the Douglas College website to learn more about the Social Work program and how to apply.
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