Velia Gonzalez, centre, with her husband Roberto Benitez and their daughter Patricia Benitez-Gonzalez during the opening of the eighth annual art exhibition for the Surrey Latin Integration Society. Gonzalez and Benitez teach the painting classes on Saturdays at the Bear Creek Pavilion. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Surrey couple teaches painting to Latin American community

Weekly classes started as a way to give back, couple says

Velia Gonzalez and Roberto Benitez say they just wanted to give back to their community when they started weekly art classes in Bear Creek Pavilion

The Surrey Latin Integration Society celebrated its eighth annual art exhibition at the Bear Creek Pavilion on Saturday, Oct. 27. The group meets every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the pavilion for three hours of painting, said Ana Mabel de Medina, a member of the society.

Gonzalez and Benitez came to Surrey in 2009, they told the Now-Leader in an interview that was translated by de Medina. The couple is originally moved to Montreal from Veracruz, Mexico in 2004, but ended up moving to B.C. nine years ago.

They wanted to help people, Benitez said, “because Canada gave them so much.”

“They were looking in the city for volunteer (opportunities) for cleaning the park,” said de Medina, adding the couple wanted to be able to contribute something to the community. She also said Gonzalez and Benitez “really liked painting.”

The couple, de Medina said, saw the pavilion and went across the parking lot to the Surrey Arts Centre with some friends to inquire about creating a non-profit organization.

After doing some paperwork with the city, de Medina said, Gonzalez and Benitez received some funding for the rental of the building.

Gonzalez said when they started offering the classes, about 10 people would come each week. Now the group is up to 30 to 40 people per week, Gonzalez said.

Each week, de Medina said, Gonzalez calls members of the society on a Thursday to find out if they are coming to paint that Saturday, and then on the Friday, Gonzalez and Benitez go shopping for snacks. Then, de Medina said, Gonzalez wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to make snacks for the people coming to paint.

Gonzalez said members pay $10 per month to help cover costs. The supplies, including paints, brushes and canvases, are supplied by Gonzalez and Benitez.

Gonzalez and Benitez were both teachers, said Gonzalez. She added that her mother used to paint so she brings that knowledge to the classes.

For the painting classes, de Medina said Gonzalez shows people how to use the brushes and apply colours. There is no template and people can work on a new piece each week on work on one piece for several weeks, de Medina said.

When de Medina, who helps to foster children, started coming to the classes, she said she had a little bit of shaking in her hands “because (she) was so stressed about having seven kids in her home.” She said she the painting classes helped her mental health because she was “stressed out to the point of breaking down.”

“Once I started here, my hands didn’t shake anymore,” de Medina said. “They just want to make a change in people.”

Gonzalez and Benitez said the classes are still open to anyone in the Spanish community. There is also childminding and children can paint and create recyclable art pieces with Gonzalez and Benitez’s daughter Patricia Benitez-Gonzalez teaching the kids.

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