That I am here is because of so many wild links,” says Rena Kulczycki, Community Development Coordinator at HeartWood Centre for Community Youth Development. “It’s a pretty amazing story.” Rena’s father was born in Warsaw in 1943. He mainly grew up in the US and came to Canada in 1970. “Every year we would visit Polish grandparents in New Jersey. There wasn’t much else about being Polish that resonated with me,” explains Rena. “I had a singsongy way to spell by name for my teachers.”
Rena’s Korean grandfather was born in North Korea and became a chemistry professor. During the Korean war he became separated for over a year from his wife, and the baby who would become Rena’s mother. They found each other at the end of the war, brought together quite miraculously by a nurse who had met the family. In 1956 he came to Dalhousie University as a visiting professor. His wife and daughter joined him six years later, becoming the first Korean landed-immigrant family in Nova Scotia. Rena’s parents met in Halifax and were married for four years. “My mom went back to Korea when I was 16 and she stayed until I was 28. My father taught grades three and five here. He made room for kids to be curious.”
My father encouraged me to find my own way. My mother helped me keep grounded and connected to culture.
Rena studied sociology and international development off and on. “I gave myself permission to drop out after a decade of fighting with myself. It wasn’t part of my path to building a better life.” At 21, they traveled around Canada with the youth program Katimavik as a participant and later a project leader. “I learned it was different everywhere,” says Rena, who worked with organizations including an indigenous group in B.C. Later they became membership and communications coordinator and public engagement coordinator at the Atlantic Council of International Cooperation, and social justice youth camps organizer with the Tatamagouche Centre.
Rena sees the influence of both parents. “My father encouraged me to find my own way. My mother helped me keep grounded and connected to culture. I’m more curious about Poland now. As a gender non-conforming person, it can be difficult to travel because of differences in legal protections for and social attitudes about 2SLGBTQI+ people like me.”
Rena has been at Heartwood for six years facilitating and mentoring in communities and organizations. “We make space for the wisdom and brilliance of young people, of their work with the Youth Action Team at the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs,” Rena says. “They are newcomers who break stigma and take action to address challenges in their communities. I provide training, focused on what’s possible. It’s an opportunity for them to know they are valued.”
Rena also volunteers as a camp counsellor with 2SLGBTQI+ youth, board member of their housing co-op, Program Facilitator with the Tatamagouche Centre and certified Dialogue for Peaceful Change Mediator. “I became what people call a social-justice warrior partly because of my understanding of the trauma my family experienced. I have a real sense of giving back.”