It is often said that the town of Milton is just one big family; the Attew family knows this better than anyone. Samantha, aka Sam, and Vernon Attew met while working at a software engineering company in the U.K., where Vernon was Sam’s boss. The two were just starting their lives together while raising two children, Holly, five, and Ryan, two, in Bicester, England, when Vernon’s company relocated him to Canada. Vernon–who spent most of his childhood in boarding school as a result of his parents’ careers–had been accustomed to moving often, but Sam was admittedly nervous about leaving her family and embarking on this new adventure.
As new immigrants to Canada, The Attews made their home temporarily in a condo near Square One Shopping Centre for a couple months. Sam recalls lonely days while Vernon worked, where she would spend most of her days walking through Square One with the kids. She and the children grew terribly homesick. She remembers how difficult it was to be separated from their family back home, and having the children so far from their grandparents. As well, she’s reminded of the small difficulties that came along with being a new immigrant in Canada, like not knowing what a SIN number is, or having to take an English test when applying for citizenship. Vernon adds at one point he was surprised to learn an RESP was something other than an Aretha Franklin lyric. Eventually, the couple decided to settle into a more permanent home in Milton. Sam had been raised in the countryside in West Sussex, so it was love at first sight when they drove into Milton for the first time in 2003, and saw the escarpment views. She instantly knew that she was home.
The couple bought their first home on Woodward Avenue across from a brand new school that would be called Chris Hadfield Public School. Holly was enrolled at Chris Hadfield’s very first senior kindergarten class. This is where their family started to grow new roots. Sam was asked by Principal Rick Nodwell, to help volunteer at the school. This was a concept that was foreign to her. In the U.K., parents were only allowed in the school when meeting for an interview with the teacher. Sam had been longing to meet new people, so she was grateful for the opportunity. She remembers how much satisfaction she got from even small tasks, like helping cut out dinosaurs from construction paper. Volunteering at the school was a great stepping stone for Sam and her family to immerse themselves into the community. Soon after came the Relay For Life event, where Sam had an idea to bring mothers from the school together. She organized a team called the Chris Hadfield Mums, and together they raised money for the Canadian Cancer Society. Ryan, Holly, and other children from the school got involved, as well, each year. Holly even had her own team one year when she was only 16 years old.
There was no stopping the Attews from getting involved once they got a taste of community. Sam found herself on the committee for the Friends of Milton District Hospital, helping with the Hospital expansion. They helped out with the Annual Strawberry Festival, the Fall Fair and even the Milton Steam Era, to name just a few. Vernon admits he prefers the back seat when it comes to planning community events, so he is always happy to help out with set up and takedown!
As Sam continued her volunteer work at Chris Hadfield, she recognised it was becoming an integral part of her life. She had always been interested in working with children. Like with everything in life, she knew there was a reason her career had taken this direction, and it was clear what that reason was. Growing up, Sam struggled in school. She was labeled as having dyslexia in her younger years, with which she struggled most of her childhood because of the lack of support offered to children back then. She admits she continues to struggle with it even today, but especially back then, Sam assumed she just wasn’t as bright as other students. She always needed to work extra hard to achieve any success. After Holly started school, it became apparent to Sam that her daughter also possessed some of the same struggles. But Sam knew she wanted a different experience for her daughter in school, so she began being even more involved in the school, in order to clear a path to advocate for Holly and other students who also needed a similar kind of support. Sam was offered a paid position as a supply educator’s assistant, and eventually, she was voted chair of the parent council which, which later on, inspired her to run for Halton Catholic District School Board trustee. When discussing the positive aspects of her volunteer work in the school, she said, “I could never have learned everything necessary to help my child or others during that time, had I not been as involved as I was.”
When Family Matters Magazine sat down with the couple’s grown children, we could instantly sense the closeness. A family who pokes fun at each other and calls each other out, despite the obvious underlying respect for one another.
Ryan, now 19, rolls his eyes and laughs when we speak of all his mother’s accomplishments. “Oh wait,” he says. “Are we telling my mother’s story or our family’s story?” His sarcastic remark sends the whole family into a barrage of inside jokes. Then, Ryan admits, “seriously, though, my mom is awesome. We would never have become as involved and met as many people as we did if it wasn’t for her.”
Holly and Ryan both have slightly different versions of what it was like growing up as immigrants without an extended family. Holly often, even to this day, experiences loneliness and maybe a little resentment in not having extended family nearby. “As a kid, and even as a teenager, I always felt sad when my friends would mention that they were going to their grandparents’ house on the weekend,” Holly shares. She shrugs, “I mean, a lot of times they would invite me to go with them and it was nice, but it just wasn’t the same.” She also recalls being enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. She laughs about it now but says, “I still have to stop myself when I say french fries, because to me, they are still chips!”
Ryan, having been a bit younger than Holly, doesnt know a life where he didn’t live in Milton. He considers this his home. However, he does have some memories of feeling quite different than the rest of the kids. “I remember being made fun of because I sounded different,” Ryan remembers. “I was a chubby kid and I remember kids calling me ‘English muffin.’” Eventually, Ryan found support, and even lost weight when he started playing baseball and basketball; his teammates became some of his closest friends, whom to this day he still considers to be like brothers.
Vernon found the family’s transition abroad the easiest. As a child, his parents moved often, travelling everywhere from Africa to The Middle East. “My parents would relocate to another country while I was away at boarding school,” Vernon says, matter of factly. “Dad,” Holly begs, “tell them about the time you came home and knocked on the door to find your parents didn’t live there anymore!” Along with his history of having to pack up his home often, Vernon also found comfort in his company also relocating several of Vernon’s colleagues with him. He also admits, “I certainly didn’t think it would have been our last move, so I thought nothing of it!”
Over the years, Sam has been awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, Citizen of the Year in 2010, and was also nominated RBC Top 25 Immigrants who have made a difference. The kids roll their eyes and poke fun when she talks about the awards, but the looks of admiration on their faces are undeniable. When asked what they have learned from their parents, both kids agree that their dad can teach them just about anything! Vernon has a very humble and calm demeanor, so it was his family who had to share one of his greatest achievements. Whilst working with the British Antarctic Survey, he was one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the hole in the ozone. As for their mom, Holly and Ryan both agree that they never would have gained the social life and community spirit they had in their childhood if it was not for Sam. Ryan also adds that his mom is the reason he gets up every morning– “not because I want to, but because she nags me until I do!” Of course, the siblings also show admiration and dedication to one another, as well. Holly admits that her brother is her rock and her stability in times of uncertainty; Ryan couldn’t be more proud of Holly’s work ethic.
These days, Sam has been scaling back a little bit, though she is still very much involved in the community. 22-year-old Holly has been asked back to her high school, Bishop Reding Catholic Secondary School, to chat with the kids who have Independent Education Plans (IEPs) like she did, and to share her success in her admission to university to study psychology. Ryan, also in university, is currently studying law. The Attews are so grateful for those who from the early days made them feel welcome in Milton and made them feel like a part of the town’s community and family. They will forever be thankful to Mr. Nodwell, the principal at Chris Hadfield, who promised when he and Sam met that he would help make Canada a home for the Attews. As well, they feel grateful for Holly’s friends Emma, Brenna, and Jenna who remain a constant support for the family, and for Ryan’s life-long buddies Sonny, Matthew, and Jack for being the brothers he never had. Sam and Vernon also feel so lucky in having found the lifelong friends they have made over the years, and value their constant support. We at Family Matters Magazine are honoured to have the Attew Family as members of this community. We are proud to have such stand-out role models in them as we do, and are always appreciative of all they do for our community. We are thrilled they have made Canada their home, but couldn’t be more happy that they specifically chose Milton as their family.