In Sydney, N.S., as with many communities across Canada, an increasing number of international students have come in recent years to pursue an education. Their first few months can be disorienting.They don’t have social connections and are faced with a new culture, a new climate and an economy where housing is scarce and costs are high.

The Salvation Army in Sydney offers assistance in various forms—they provide students with food from the food bank, point them to the thrift store and offer social connections through volunteering and the church—but many practical needs are taken care of by a dedicated group of corps members.

Among them are Joan Macneil-Jones and her husband, Gary Jones, who welcome the international students in their area by providing them with clothing, furniture and other necessities, and becoming their first friends in a strange new place. Others have since joined in to contribute household items and prove that help is only a phone call away.

“It’s like this underground network of people who care,” says Lieutenant Jenelle Durdle, corps officer at Sydney Community Church. “It’s very Spirit-led. It’s not something that anybody has asked them to do. It’s just who they are.”

Faith in Action

Macneil-Jones grew up in a Christian family, and in her younger years she had only known of The Salvation Army as a charitable organization. “My husband and I were searching for where we belonged,” she says. When a Salvationist friend suggested Macneil-Jones visit her church, she went to see what it was all about.

She didn’t expect the warm reception they received when they visited. Ten months later, Macneil-Jones and Jones became adherents and are now senior soldiers at Sydney Community Church, which they have attended for more than 20 years. “We went and never looked back. We really feel like this place is faith in action. It’s not just preaching; it’s living out God’s Word.”

Faith in action is part of who Macneil-Jones is. Five years ago, after retiring from a career in nursing due to health reasons, she heard about an opportunity at Cape Breton University (CBU) to become a volunteer mentor to international students. With her name on the mentor list, Macneil-Jones began receiving calls from people all over the world with questions about their future in Canada.

“Most were asking about the climate, what to bring, or how to find a room,” she explains. “I told them, ‘When you get here, if you need a friendly face or somebody to show you around, get in touch with me.’ ” 

Macneil-Jones joined her local “buy nothing” group on Facebook and began decluttering her house to collect everything that someone new to Canada might need—pots, dishes, winter clothing, bedding and even a Christmas tree. She turned her garage into a storage area and developed a network of friends who contribute to the cause, from donating extra furniture and housewares to loading pickup trucks to deliver an apartment’s worth of supplies to students and families.

“This is bigger than me. It’s a God thing,” says Macneil-Jones. “People now call me to offer their help, as well. If it’s something I think could be useful to somebody, I never say no.”

A Sense of Community

Joan and Gary celebrate Canada Day with friends. Back, from left, María, Joan Macneil-Jones and Gary Jones. Front, from left, Yinka and her two boys, Kunmi and Teju
Joan and Gary celebrate Canada Day with friends. Back, from left, María, Joan Macneil-Jones and Gary Jones. Front, from left, Yinka and her two boys, Kunmi and Teju

Moving countries is challenging, but for María, who arrived in April 2022 from Bolivia, it was even more complicated with her husband and two daughters in tow. When they arrived, they only had suitcases and some clothes that weren’t suitable for Canadian weather.

At first, María connected with Macneil-Jones to collect a free steamer she had listed on the Facebook group.

“What I found instead was Joan’s extraordinary generosity,” says María. “Not only did she provide the steamer, but she also offered clothing and kitchenware that we really needed. She even gave us a small plant and home-grown tomatoes. The gesture was simple, but deeply moving.”

Macneil-Jones introduced María and her family to the Salvation Army church where they feel like they belong. “This has really helped us settle in, giving us friends and a support system,” says María. “Joan and Gary’s friendship has been a lifeline during our transition and has given us a sense of community at a time when we felt most isolated.”

A Friendly Face

Many of the students who contact Macneil-Jones are experiencing fear and anxiety about going to a new place. “We are physically helping people find what they need, but we’re also a friendly face and an ear to listen to their worries,” says Macneil-Jones, who has even housed a few students until they found places to live. “Many of them have become our friends.”

After her arrival in 2023, Tamara, a student from Mexico City, received help from Macneil-Jones, who brought her family clothing and furniture. In February, during Tamara’s first Canadian winter, a storm hit Cape Breton Island, bringing more than 150 centimetres of snow, and Sydney declared a state of emergency.

“The streets weren’t plowed yet, but my daughter needed to go to the hospital urgently,” says Tamara. “I called 911, but the ambulance got stuck in the snow.”

Tamara called Macneil-Jones and Jones for help, and they sprang into action. Jones contacted a friend, Bobby Lund, whose street had been plowed, and trudged through deep snow to meet Lund in his pickup truck. They were able to pick up Tamara’s family and get them to the hospital and back home safely.

“We are eternally grateful,” says Tamara.

Part of Us

When Tony first came to Canada in December 2023, he left his family behind in Mexico. With a wife and two young children, he wanted to see what he would face in a new country without his children having to endure the difficult transition.

“I really needed everything. I didn’t even have a spoon for eating,” says Tony. “Joan and Gary picked me up at my closest Walmart because I don’t have a car. That afternoon, they brought me many things: dishes, clothes, curtains, beautiful furniture and scooters for my kids.”

One day, after noticing that Tony had a guitar at home, Macneil-Jones invited him to attend a church service at The Salvation Army to see other musicians in action.

Gary’s pickup truck loaded with furniture for a family new to Canada
Gary’s pickup truck loaded with furniturefor a family new to Canada

“I said yes right away,” Tony shares. “When we arrived, there was a drums group, and I told Joan that I was better at playing drums than guitar. They introduced me in front of the congregation, and I played throughout the service. From that moment, I felt a part of the group.”

Tony’s family joined him in Canada in January 2024 and now attend church services with him. “We are very grateful to belong to The Salvation Army, and we really enjoy going to the church every Sunday,” he says.

According to Lieutenant Durdle, the bulk of the corps are people like Tony who have come to Canada in the last few years. “They know they have a church here. They are part of us,” she says. “We’re learning how to build deeper relationships—these relationships have strengthened the entire ministry unit. It has brought all of us together.”

Act Love, Show Love, Give Love

Macneil-Jones’ ministry to international students may have started as a volunteer gig through the university, but it has become a deeper calling, and now she is surrounded by a community of new friends whom she has helped adjust to life in Canada. “It wasn’t planned. I truly believe I’ve been led to do this,” says Macneil-Jones. “I feel God’s hand in this.”

Some of these new friends have even become like family, including Yinka and her sons Teju and Kunmi, who call Macneil-Jones and Jones “Nana” and “Papa.”

“Joan was the first friend we made at The Salvation Army,” says Yinka, who came from Nigeria to Nova Scotia in April 2023 to enrol as a student at CBU. “She extended an arm of love to me and my sons; like a guardian angel, she brought us all we needed at that time.”

“You might not think you have much to give. Sometimes it’s enough to give your time and a listening ear,” says Macneil-Jones. “It’s a way to connect, and it’s a blessing from God.”

And for students like Yinka, the help and friendship has made a lasting impact. “She has taught me a lot about sharing, and that it costs nothing to be nice and put a smile on a face,” says Yinka. “Her friendship is a practical example of practising what you preach. Do not just preach love—act love, show love and give love.” 

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