Maria Vicencio: Building community for her children
by Winluck Wong
This article is part of PRUDE Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by Immigration New Brunswick.
The minute Maria Vicencio held her first child in her arms, she felt her entire worldview shift. “Now everything is for them,” she thought. Everything to provide them with a safe and nurturing environment as best she can.
Discovering her values
Since her childhood in Santiago de Chile, Maria has always strived to be at her best. “I want to learn…I want to take that knowledge to make something of it,” she said. “It’s about me feeling proud of the work that I do in everything.”
This extends to her everyday interactions with the people around her, even from an early age. There was a homeless man who often sat outside her family’s church when Maria was a child. She remembered her younger self insisting on making an extra sandwich for him on their way to church every Sunday.
Maria believes everyone – regardless of their status – has an inherent value. And it’s only by taking the time to understand what that is does she feel she’s in a better place to make a positive contribution. “Getting to know people and to understand them and not have a bias,” she said. “It’s something that kind of defines me. It’s been like that since always.”
There had been times though when her desire to learn from others came at the expense of her own wants.
She had plans to study biology in university. But when she got there, she followed someone else’s career advice and ended up taking Food Science Engineering instead.
It took going into third year for her to finally admit that this wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to find her own way in the corporate world.
In 2005, she landed her first job as a call centre specialist at ADT. By 2008, she became a VIP account manager. That experience eventually helped her transition to account management in Banco Santander, where she worked up to Senior and Preferential Account Manager.
The higher she advanced though, the more she realized her career was getting in the way of how present
she wanted to be for her children. “It was a lot of stress,” she said, describing her work at Banco Santander. “It was a lot of long hours. And it was not something that we would be able to kind of make it compatible with me being a mom.”
It made no sense to her to pay someone else to look after her own children. And yet, bills still had to be paid. What she needed was a way to make money while having a more flexible schedule.
Her solution was to partner with her friend to start a business.
Flight to safety
Side by side, Maria’s family and business grew. She even found time to become more involved in her community by volunteering at a non-profit to rescue abandoned pets. “I wanted to have every dog that I could grab,” she said. “And that was a good thing that my husband was like, ‘No. Stop. We’re going to have a thousand dogs. We already have two.’“
As the years passed, she noticed a stark change in Santiago. The streets didn’t feel as safe as they were when she was growing up. Crime was on the rise. It seemed like every day there was news of robberies and carjackings.
One in particular went wrong.
“The criminals shot a baby because the mom got super nervous and couldn’t take the kid out of the seat,” Maria said. “And, with that, I told my husband, ‘You know what, I don’t care. We need to get out of here. I don’t want to live in this country. I don’t care what it takes. We’re moving out.’”
They looked to Canada because they felt it offered the best opportunity for their children to be whomever they wanted. And they liked the thought of Saint John’s relaxed lifestyle and its bayside climate.
However, the pandemic and the fluctuating travel guidelines made the move that much more challenging for them.
Nonetheless, in December 2021, they finally made it to Saint John. “It’s so liberating to be able to walk in the middle of the night or get out with my kids without fearing of someone, I don’t know, shooting me because of my bag,” Maria said.
She began her studies in the Business Administration: Management program at New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) and found a part-time job with the YMCA as a Member Services Representative.
Outside of school and work, she joined a choir just for the fun of it. She also enjoys spending time at beaches with her children.
Focus on community
Maria credits her quick embrace of Saint John life to the people here. “Everyone is super welcoming and I love that because it allows you to not be afraid of being a little goofy, which is how I am a lot of the time,” she said. Her positive outlook was also crucial, which didn’t used to come easily.
Six years ago, she was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was a revelation that changed her life for the better.
“I think I cried [for], like, a month after I discovered that,” she said. Before the diagnosis, she always felt like she was someone who could never complete anything. “When I got that information, for me, it was like…I can. I’m capable. I just didn’t have the tools to do that.”
These days, she feels she has the right tools to help her focus on what matters most. That and her children have given Maria the sense of accomplishment she’d been seeking her whole life.
With her family now settled in Saint John, she wants to tap into her enthusiasm for community. “I’d really like to contribute to the new commerce community,” Maria said. And it begins with every person she meets. “Knowing that I have that opportunity to create and to build a relationship with someone and for them to remember that they had a pleasant experience with me is something that motivates me to work.”