They watched her baby while she worked at Dairy Queen: Filipino immigrants find kindness in small town Alberta

She found herself alone in a new country, working on a temporary visa, and pregnant.

Then, Dixie Marie Judilla says she was blessed by an extraordinary act of kindness in Claresholm, Alta.

In 2008, Judilla left her small town in the Philippines for another small town in the Canadian prairies. She arrived in Claresholm during a December blizzard.

Days later, she was making Blizzards at the local Dairy Queen. 

Several years passed and money was tight. Then, Judilla found out she was going to be a mom. A single mom. And she was considering very difficult decisions.

“Because as a foreign worker, you’re not entitled, you don’t have any benefits and nannies are expensive. So I just cried and said, ‘I think when I give birth I’ll just take my son back home [to the Philippines] and let my parents take care of him. And then I’ll just come back [to Claresholm] to earn money,'” said Judilla.

But that never happened, thanks to an act of great kindness. 

Dixie Marie Judilla says she was blessed by an extraordinary act of kindness when she found herself alone, working on a temporary visa and pregnant. 2:01

Judilla’s son, Dominic — who turns 10 this year — was able to stay in Canada with his mother thanks to a local couple.

Gerd and Elaine Schmidt, who had moved to Claresholm in the 1970s, were empty nesters and retired. Gerd met Judilla at the Claresholm Dairy Queen, where he was a regular customer.

While Gerd drank his coffee and read his paper, he’d often strike up conversations with Judilla. When he learned of her plans to send her baby back to the Philippines, he and Elaine stepped in to help.  

After baby Dominic was born, they offered to watch him, allowing Judilla to stay in Canada, stay with her job and build the future she hoped for.

“Staying in Claresholm, I met these good people with a good heart, Canadians who helped me … take care of my son for free without even asking for anything in return,” Judilla said.

Thirteen years and many snowstorms later, Judilla has no plans to leave rural Alberta. She has gained her Canadian permanent residency and now works at an Alberta Health Services long-term care facility.

“This is my town. This is my home.”

Dixie Marie Judilla and her son, Dominic. (Submitted by Dixie Marie Judilla)

‘Canadian grandma’

It was a relationship that lasted for years. With visits, meals and holidays spent together.

Dixie Marie Judilla says Gerd Schmidt treated her son Dominic like a grandson. (Submitted by Dixie Marie Judilla)

“They’re special,” said Elaine Schmidt.

She said her husband saw himself as a mentor to Judilla, and related to her because he was also an immigrant. Gerd Schmidt was born in Berlin, Germany. He moved to Saskatchewan in 1955, where he worked on a farm.

“He didn’t have any family in Canada either … he said when he came over people helped him, so he wanted to help somebody too.”

When Gerd passed away in 2017, Dixie Marie and Dominic were mentioned in his obituary. And even though Elaine later moved to Lethbridge to be closer to her adult children, she still stays in touch with the Judillas.

Before the pandemic, Dixie Marie would drive from Claresholm to Lethbridge so Elaine could visit with Dominic.

“I always tell him … I’m your Canadian grandma,” she said.

Through the Judillias, Elaine Schmidt said she and her husband met many members of the Filipino community in and around Claresholm, and developed happy relationships. 

This is my town. This is my home.– Dixie Marie Judilla, Claresholm, Alta.

While the majority of newcomers to Canada settle in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, where there are more established immigrant communities, federal programs like the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot are helping fill jobs outside the big cities. 

Roughly 25,000 immigrants have come to small towns (with populations less than 10,000) and rural areas in Alberta over the past decade, Statistics Canada estimates. 

When Susan and Roy Hernando left the Philippines and immigrated to Canada, their first stop was Toronto. But they only stayed two years before moving to Yellowknife, and then to a much smaller community.

“I didn’t even know where Stettler was. All I knew was that it was in Alberta,” laughed Susan, who was interviewed for her job by Skype.

She’s now the Director of Financial Services for the Clearview School Board. Roy Hernando teaches Grade 5 with the Siksika First Nation, where he said he’s always felt “very welcomed.” 

Isaac, Rosanne, Susan, Roy and Schubert Hernando in Stettler, Alta. (Submitted by Susan Hernando)

The Hernandos are active members of their local church and have performed at Stettler’s annual music festival. Susan Hernando said small towns are a great place for newcomers to put down roots.

“Salaries are the same. If you work at Tim Hortons [in Stettler], it’s the same salary if you work at Tim Hortons in Calgary. And cost of living is way, way, way cheaper. And there’s a lot of free stuff. Free vegetables in the summer and sometimes there’s even free beef! And free chickens [from nearby farms]!”

Susan Hernando, right, picking corn with Edith Cole on her farm in Brownfield, Alta. Hernando says every year, Cole gives out free vegetables to the local Filipino community. (Submitted by Susan Hernando)

More than 15,000 Filipinos immigrated to small Alberta communities between 2010 and 2016, according to the most recent statistics.

The Hernandos said there were around 40 Filipinos in Stettler when they arrived in 2009. Today there are about 150.

And Susan Hernando said she knows most of them.

“In a big city, if you see a Filipino, you smile but you don’t usually talk to them. But in a small town … you would immediately have the urge to talk to them. Unlike in a big city.”

Susan, who prides herself on being a “big sister ” to all the new Filipinos in town, said people in her small town make an effort to welcome newcomers, with a smile, a friendly greeting and sometimes, a couple ears of corn.

CBC News Calgary8:55Q&A: Filipinos embrace life in small town Alberta

Dixie Marie Judillo and Susan Hernando talk to the CBC’s Danielle Nerman about finding joy, friendship and kindness in Alberta’s small towns. 8:55

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