Can you be a helper? An invitation that sparked a cascade of connection

A week before Christmas, with public health requests to avoid gathering with family ringing in her ears, Lisa Sambo tiptoed around her community of N’Quatqua and taped green and red print-outs to everyone’s front doors.

One poster was for adults and read: “Could you be a helper?”

One was for youth and kids, and was an invitation to take part in a Show and Tell game.

Ts7acw Sklísmes, ended the poster. Happy Christmas.

Ámhas ku swá7su. Good wishes.

Due to COVID-19, the project was a pivot. Sambo, as the director of the N’Quatqua Child and Family Development Centre, often secures funding for language vitalization and community gatherings, and has become practiced at hosting feasts and get-togethers for the community. Cue COVID-19, and the great question that has muddled us all steps forth – how do we meet our needs, connect, support one another, if we’re staying apart?

One of Lisa’s earlier initiatives was inspired by this question: how do I help revitalize language learning in the community, and tell you I love you, when we cannot hug? She had t-shirts printed with the beautiful St’at’imects phrase, “áma s7at̓sxentsína ” screenprinted across the front. It means, “it is good to see you,” and for Lisa, it felt like a non-invasive way of expressing her joy and love for people.

The success of this project, which took her a long way out of her comfort zone, emboldened her to keep being brave. She shared with me that she is comfortable hosting gatherings – she has that down pat – the advertising, the food, the setting up of tables, the greeting of people and playing host. What she wanted to do was provide that sense of hospitality and welcome and connection in her community, and she had to think of a different way to do it.

Drawing inspiration from the wise and wonderful Wanosts’a7 Dr Lorna Williams OC OBC, Sambo focussed on the word pal7altsem, to visit one another. Wanosts’a7 had shared about this word, this practice, when she delivered the keynote speech at the at the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL – ‘Let the Languages Live’ – 2019 International Conference on Indigenous Languages, that Lisa attended.

Here’s what Wanosts’a7shared:

One of the most beautiful parts of my family and my community when I was growing up is that people would pál7altsem.

Kamecwstwál̓a i qelhqelhmémn̓a t̓iq pál7altsem.

‘The old people lifted each other’s spirits when they came visiting.’

I know you have that word in your language. pál7altsem, in my language is to visit, to go and have a cup of tea with somebody. To go and just sit on the porch and visit, to tell stories, to reminisce, to laugh and joke, to be with one another. Had we not had that, I may not have recovered from my experience in residential school, but it’s because people would come together in such an uplifting way, such a caring way, that we’ve been able to overcome all of those experiences. So I want to encourage you. To bring language back, we need to pál7altsem, to visit  one another, to spend time with one another and in our communities we need to be able to do that.

So she posted an invitation to all the front doors: “could you be a helper? Could you phone and talk with N’Quatqua Members (on-reserve or off-reserve) who are outside your bubble during this holiday season. (Dec 18 – Jan 18.) Pal7altsem: to visit one another.

As incentive, to do something different and get out of comfort zones, those participating would receive a $100 honorarium or gift card to a local business.

5 weeks after sharing this challenge, Sambo dropped me a note. 157 people had participated in this invitation. She received some incredibly heart-warming feedback from people like:

  • I phoned people I haven’t talked to in a long time
  • I learned about my family tree
  • Our extended family has zoom meetings / group face time
  • I encouraged someone who wasn’t feeling well
  • I will continue to phone people after this activity is over
  • I reached out to connect with other people and then people reached out to me, that was nice, I was surprised by that
  • I used my gaming device / FaceTime / google meet / facebook portal to connect with other people

Lisa shared that this is not a favourite way for connecting, in her community. “We prefer in person with food, being able to see people’s body language and hug them so hard that I don’t have to use my words to tell them how I feel.” 

But they connected. In fact, Lisa shared that 157 is the highest participation rate in an activity she’s had since she started as a manager. A big event, like Christmas dinner or a health fair, would see 40-45 people. And it involved everyone… including men.

I share this with you, on Valentine’s Day, or because you may be feeling bummed that you aren’t going out for a fancy dinner with your beloved, or because you don’t have a beloved, or because your beloved is driving you crazy because they’re the only person you’ve really talked to in far too long, or because you miss affection, or because it’s Sunday.

I get it.

Could you be a love-bomber? Could you phone and talk with one person? Just pal7altsem. Have a visit, by phone, or zoom.

The other night, our friends faced-timed us. I thought it must have been an accidental pocket-dial, because we have never done that before. We’ve shared a lot of dinners together, in the past. And it wasn’t a pocket dial. They just thought it would be fun to see each other. And so we did. And it was great. It was spontaneous. It was chill. It was energizing. I’m so glad that they took the initiative to pal7altsem with us.

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