A Life's Story
January 16, 2021
Giving till she couldn't
Filipina immigrant followed long nursing career and raising two daughters by co-founding social-justice organization
By: Joel Schlesinger
Ronita Roy never ceased to surprise her two daughters or, for that matter, anyone who knew the retired nurse and founder of a non-profit devoted to social justice.
Even facing Stage 4 pancreatic cancer earlier this year, she revealed another facet of her remarkable life that stunned her adult children, Roxanne and Kathleen Roy.
"Even 36 years in, I was like, ‘Seriously, I thought you (and Dad) just met through friends when you got here,’" says Kathleen, about how her mother met their father, Noel Roy, who died in 2013.
"She was like, ‘No, no, we were pen pals.’"
As her mother told her, the girls’ dad had a neighbour from the Philippines who suggested he write to Ronita, then working as a science teacher in Lupao, north of Manila. The romance was slow-moving, involving three years of letter-writing and long-distance calls before she agreed to come to Canada.
"It was like the original online dating, I guess," Kathleen says with a laugh.
Their mom spent little time acclimatizing. She and Noel married after four months. She worked several part-time jobs while attending Red River Community College, leading to a long career in nursing, before retiring and, in 2008, founding the Manitoba Advocacy Group for Social Justice Inc.
Roy (nee Osio) died March 26 at age 69 at Riverview Health Centre, just as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Canada, leaving her family and countless friends and acquaintances without a proper way to pay respects to a woman who helped hundreds since her arrival here in 1983.
Up until her diagnosis in January, she continued to be the driving force behind MAG, helping economically disadvantaged Winnipeggers.
Starting the non-profit more than a decade ago was another surprising turn for those who knew her, but not because no one would have expected her to take on a significant role serving others, when she already had a fair bit on her plate, says her best friend, Irene Puloski.
At the time, Roy had just finished battling leukemia. Almost immediately after it went into remission, "she decided she wanted to stand up for the financially and physically disadvantaged," says Puloski, who helped create MAG with Roy.
It took several years of groundwork before MAG had a framework and funding in place to operate as a non-profit, becoming an organization that has since helped dozens of individuals, providing weekly food hampers and bus tickets, among other supports.
Yet during that span, Roy was dealing with another personal challenge. In the late 2000s, her husband was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological illness that ultimately led to his placement in long-term care.
"She visited him every single day," Kathleen says.
Before the illness, Roy and her husband had planned to spend retirement taking road trips in a 1960 Pontiac Laurentian that he had spent years restoring. She wasn’t a car buff but she would go with her husband to shows around Manitoba and made friends everywhere. As Kathleen tells it, her mom was a meticulous planner while her dad was a spontaneous bon vivant — a good match.
"She was always up for anything, though," Kathleen notes, adding one day her parents left on an unplanned trip through the U.S. and returned to Canada crossing the border into Nova Scotia.
While they did not always see eye to eye with their mom in their teens and early adulthood, their relationship with Roy deepened after their dad’s death in 2013.
"I used to think she would always nag on me," says Roxanne, Roy’s youngest.
Indeed, Roy was not one to remain silent regarding what she thought of her daughters’ pivotal life decisions. They may have butted heads at times, but their mother was always there to help, regardless.
"Now that I have my own family and kids, I realize she wasn’t nagging," Roxanne adds. "She was just speaking from experience."
Perhaps Roy’s greatest lesson was resilience. She would tirelessly pursue goals even when they seemed insurmountable. Such was the case when adopting Roxanne from the Philippines, which often felt impossible.
Biologically Roy’s niece, Roxanne came to Canada at age 11 in 2001. Roy’s sister had five children and lived in poverty. Roy particularly worried about Roxanne, who’d been abused by her biological father.
"They fought really hard to bring me here, even when I was refused entry to Canada several times."
Roxanne recalls how frightened and lost she felt at first in her new home.
But the Roys treated her as their own from the start.
Other family members came over the years, too. As did countless other newcomers, thanks to Roy, who became a certified immigration consultant. She frequently did the work free of charge.
"She wouldn’t ask for money because she knew these folks were already financially stressed," Puloski says.
Also a nurse, Puloski met Roy later in life.
Roy had already retired from her position as Central Park Lodge’s assistant director of nursing.
"She just didn’t have the energy to keep going after being diagnosed with leukemia," Puloski recalls.
Still, she kept busy, enrolling in a facilitator’s course at Klinic Community Health, where she met Puloski. They quickly became friends. And they often co-facilitated the Get Better Together program, based on a Stanford University initiative aimed at helping individuals with chronic health conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, develop better habits to reduce the impact of disease.
"She never drove. I had a car, and so we ended up spending four days out of the week together," Puloski says. "I could start a sentence and she could finish it."
Roy spent her final days with her daughters and grandchildren Mikayla and Nolan, as well as Puloski.
"One night at the hospital I said, ‘Let’s pretend we’re on a camping trip, and that’s what we did,’" Puloski says. Soon someone was in Roy’s room with a guitar, and they all were singing along to Elvis Presley tunes.
"We had a really enjoyable time in spite of the fact we knew we were losing her."
Months later, the wound of her death remains fresh for her children and closest friend. And the loss is being felt in the community. Puloski says MAG’s future is uncertain because of the pandemic without Roy at the helm. And so many others will no longer benefit from her everyday kindness.
"She would open her home to anyone."
Puloski adds Roy would often invite her daughter’s friends, who had nowhere else to go during the holidays, into her home, even ensuring they received gifts. And when Roy’s nephew Jaime Adao Jr. was murdered in a home invasion in 2019, she again was there to help.
"She was devastated, of course," Puloski says. At the time, the family could not go back to their home and so Roy had them stay with her, she adds.
"She never took advantage of anyone, and she was there for everyone," Puloski says, her voice cracking with grief.
"I loved and admired her so much."