From ‘Olé’ to ‘Hola’

Local Spanish teacher draws on his authentic roots—and colorful history—to teach his students

After two heart transplants as a baby and toddler, <a href=

generic Robbie Thompson and his mom, prescription Sue Germain, understand more than anyone the importance of organ donation. “It’s important to get the word out to as many people as we can, to raise awareness that organ donation saves lives,” says Germain. Photo by Seadance Photography” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> After two heart transplants as a baby and toddler, Robbie Thompson and his mom, Sue Germain, understand more than anyone the importance of organ donation.  “It’s important to get the word out to as many people as we can, to raise awareness that organ donation saves lives,” says Germain. Photo by Seadance Photography

On a bright and sunny September morning, back in 2000, a little boy stood on the pitcher’s mound at Lewis Park and did his very best to throw the first pitch of the game.

There wasn’t much chance of the ball reaching the batter—he was only two years old—but his dribble of a throw created huge smiles, more than a few tears, and a roaring cheer that was probably heard as far as Goose Spit. To those watching the game, especially to his mom who was at his side, that first ‘pitch’ was the best thing they’d seen in a long while.

The child standing on the pitcher’s mound that day was heart transplant recipient Robbie Thompson and the game was the third annual Robbie Thompson Slo-Pitch Tournament, organized two years before to benefit Robbie’s family—helping them to bear the financial burden of caring for a critically ill child.

Many longtime Valley residents probably remember the gut wrenching story of baby Robbie and his family. In 1998 and 1999 Robbie’s picture—that adorable baby face with those piercing old-soul eyes—adorned the front page of the local papers regularly as readers followed Robbie’s fight to stay alive. Robbie’s journey began when he was only five months old after was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, enlargement of the heart.

“Robbie’s heart was supposed to be the size of a walnut, but instead it was the size of a grapefruit,” says Robbie’s mom, Sue Germain. “His heart was so big you could actually see it pushing out his ribcage on his left side. He was losing weight because the enlarged heart was pushing against his esophagus and that made it difficult for him to eat. He had difficulty breathing because his heart was crowding out his left lung.”

Initially, doctors tried to treat Robbie’s condition with drugs, but with time it became clear that his only option was a heart transplant.

After twice going into cardiac arrest, Robbie was finally flown to the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto to be monitored more closely while he awaited a new heart. Doctors informed Robbie’s family that the wait for a new heart would be longer than expected because of his rare blood type—B negative. “That was both bad and good,” recalls Germain. “Bad, obviously, because Robbie would have to wait longer for a donor that matched his blood type; but the good thing was that there would be less competition for the heart when one came available.”

In July of 1999, after being on the waiting list for 11 long months, Robbie’s condition was clearly deteriorating. “Robbie was so incredibly sick then. He’d been unconscious for two days, his kidneys were beginning to fail, he was listed as category four—life or death,” recalls Germain. “The doctors told me to start making funeral arrangements. Later in the day a priest came by, visited for a while and read from the Bible. I remember it was Psalm 23, the one that talks about walking through the darkest valley. Up until then I’d been extremely angry about what was happening to Robbie. But at that moment, while the priest read from the Bible, things changed for me—I just sort of gave my anger away. I prayed, ‘God, just take him, or give him a heart.’ I remember that I was finally at peace.”

Amazingly, that was when the situation changed for Robbie too, because a few hours later, at 4:00 am, the call they had all been waiting for came through. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Germain. “The nurses burst into the room yelling and telling me to get ready—that there was a heart for Robbie. I was in shock. We’d waited 11 months for a heart, but in 20 minutes two became available. We were able to take the best one.”

Though Sue and her husband Ron were elated that there was new hope for their son, they didn’t lose sight of what that really meant. “As soon as we could we ran down to the chapel to pray for the donor family that was grieving the loss of their child,” Germain says. “That’s the worst thing about organ donation—I’ve always been aware that someone had to die in order for my son to live.”

Robbie recovered well from his ordeal, but unfortunately, three years later he had to endure another transplant after doctors found blockages in his heart, putting him at high risk for heart attack.

“That second transplant was very profound,” says Germain. “I remember walking through the recovery unit days later, seeing other children who had received transplants on the same night as Robbie, realizing that there were at least five other children who were given a second chance because of one child. The parents of that child who died, though they must have been in terrible agony, they were able to say yes when they were asked about organ donation. In my eyes the donor families are the biggest heroes.”

And we need more heroes. In British Columbia there are 300 people currently waiting for an organ donation. Across Canada there are approximately 4,500 people awaiting a transplant. Unfortunately, the demand far outweighs the supply, and every year many people—between 200 and 300—die while they are on the waiting list. The statistics are frustrating because although most people support organ donation, only a small fraction have taken the time to sign an organ donation card or register online. For example, in BC, there are 890,000 people listed as official organ donors. That may seem like a large number, but it’s only 19 per cent of the population.

Canada has struggled over the years to bring our organ donation rate in line with other developed nations. Spain leads the world in organ donation statistics at 34 donors per million people. France, Italy and the US have rates between 20 and 30 per million people. Canada’s rate? Only 15 per million. There is an obvious need for more people to sign on as organ donors, but that’s only part of the solution.

People also need to make it clear to their family members that they want to be an organ donor. Here in Canada it is mandatory for hospital staff to inquire about possible organ donation when appropriate. Unfortunately, that is when relatives are going through what is possibly the most difficult time of their lives—coming to terms with the recent or imminent loss of their loved one. It’s not the ideal time to consider organ donation for the first time, but that’s the situation hospital staff have to face most times they approach a potential donor family.

“When people don’t register their wishes and don’t talk about their intentions with their family it makes it much harder to convince them to agree to organ donation if that time comes,” says Germain. “That’s sad, because I believe that organ donation is the best way to honor someone’s memory. One person can save as many as eight lives, and improve the quality of life for up to 75 people.”

It’s important to note that most people who receive an organ donation go on to live full and productive lives. “Since Robbie’s transplants, he hasn’t just existed, he’s had the most extraordinary life—a good, happy and productive life that honors the donor family,” says Germain. “His heart was a true gift. He needs to take care of it—so he lives healthy and he exercises.”

Robbie, now 16, doesn’t just exercise, he competes and wins. In fact, he has a wall of medals to prove it. Most recently, at the Canadian Transplant Games held this past July in Moncton, Robbie made British Columbia proud when he proceeded to win three gold medals, one silver and one bronze.

The Transplant Games, held provincially, nationally and worldwide, showcase the vitality enjoyed by people who have benefited from organ transplantation. “The transplant games are about celebrating the lives that are saved because of organ donation,” Germain says. “In fact, I’ve never seen a happier set of people. They’re all happy to be alive, right? They’ve all been granted a second chance at life, and they’re not letting it pass them by.”

In addition to celebrating lives saved, the Transplant Games are also about saying thank you to the donors and the donor families who have made it all possible.

“At one point during the opening ceremonies, donor families march into the arena while the rest of us stand and cheer,” says Germain. “It’s always very emotional, but also very inspiring. In fact, every year, each city that hosts the Transplant Games has a marked increase in the number of people listing themselves as organ donors.”

This past July in Moncton, during the 5K road race, Robbie pasted a picture of Ciaran Martin on his helmet. Ciaran was the young man who was killed this past January when he was hit by a car while he was long-boarding. Ciaran was the same age as Robbie.

“I raced with Ciaran’s picture pasted onto my helmet for two reasons,” says Robbie. “Firstly, although Ciaran died in a tragic accident, his parents allowed his organs to be transplanted, and because of that many other people are alive today. The identity of my donor families has never been revealed to me, but I do know Ciaran’s family, and by honoring them I honor the donor families who helped to save my life. I also put Ciaran’s picture on my helmet to draw awareness to the importance of wearing a helmet—Ciaran wasn’t wearing one when he was hit by the car.”

Robbie has competed in several Transplant Games throughout the years and he’s always done well. In 2009 he was able to represent Canada at the World Transplant Games in Australia, where he won a gold medal in cycling and two bronze medals in swimming. Next year the World Transplant Games will be in Argentina. Robbie would love to represent Canada at those games, but he can only go if he can raise the funds.

But before Argentina, Robbie has a responsibility that he’s had since he was only two—he’s expected to throw the first pitch at the tournament that carries his name. The Robbie Thompson Slo-pitch Tournament is always held the third weekend in September at Lewis Park and it consistently draws teams from all over the Island and the Lower Mainland. In fact, some teams have competed in the tournament every year since its inception 17 years ago. Over the years the tournament has raised more than $110,000 for local charities.

Besides throwing the first pitch, this year Robbie will be doing something extra special to raise funds and awareness for organ donation—he’s going to shave off his hair.

“Everyone knows me by my hair,” says Robbie. “When people describe me they say things like, ‘He’s the one with the big hair.’ So last year someone dared me to shave it off during the next tournament. I said yes and so I’ve been growing it out ever since. It’s been a challenge, having even longer hair than usual. For example, it can get full of knots if I don’t manage it. But I made a promise last year, and when I make a promise I stick to it.” Robbie will sit down for the big shave on Saturday night, September 20.
At the tournament Robbie and his mom will also be manning a table where people can get information about organ donation and sign donor cards. Robbie will be the one wearing the T-shirt that says, ‘I run on spare parts.’

“Robbie and I will be there, encouraging people to sign donor cards,” says Germain. “It’s important to get the word out to as many people as we can, to raise awareness that organ donation saves lives.

“I mean, it’s more likely that we’ll need an organ donated to us than it is that we’ll be organ donors. The odds are in our favor. And like I always say, it’s the best form of recycling around.”

To become an organ donor register online or request a registration card at  Note that if you have an organ donor sticker on your BC CareCard it is no longer valid—you must register again at the above website.  If you’d like to support Robbie’s wish to represent Canada at the World Transplant Games in Argentina you can donate to the Robbie Thompson Trust Fund at any Coastal Community Credit Union branch.

The Robbie Thompson Slo-Pitch Tournament will be held Sept. 19, 20 and 21 at Lewis Park. For more information call organizer Jim Lalic at 250-331-1206 or email
[email protected]

“It is my nature to challenge myself and raise the bar of excellence high, <a href=

buy more about
” says Gustavo Yelamo, mind
who teaches Spanish classes in the Comox Valley. “It is important for me to know that I provide excellent service to my students.” Photo by Seadance Photography” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> “It is my nature to challenge myself and raise the bar of excellence high,” says Gustavo Yelamo, who teaches Spanish classes in the Comox Valley. “It is important for me to know that I provide excellent service to my students.” Photo by Seadance Photography

It would be an understatement to say that Venezuelan-born Gustavo Yelamo was a bit of a rebel when he was a teenager.  No, he wasn’t sneaking off to parties and getting into trouble with the law, but he was involved in a dangerous activity that his mother definitely would not have approved of.

“I was six-years-old when my family moved from the small town of La Victoria to the capital city of Caracas,” explains Yelamo.  “My Spanish-born father worked for the government of Venezuela and we were always entertaining politicians, dignitaries and celebrities in our home. It was not uncommon for us to have a house full of VIPs for dinner. Amongst the crowd, there would often be famous Spanish matadors dressed in their spectacular satin ‘traje de luces’ (suit of lights). While I was not so keen on the bullfighting itself, I was fascinated by their courage, elegance and style. When I turned 16, I began secretly learning how to be a bullfighter, too.” 

Unbeknownst to his parents, Yelamo practiced his new hobby for almost two years before they discovered what he was up to. He impressed the crowds with his graceful style and finesse, and had fully mastered the art of the bullfighter’s dance with danger. He had even been given a bullfighter’s stage name—Gustavin. Yelamo may very well have had a lifetime career as a bullfighter, if not for the photograph of him that appeared in the local newspaper. The would-be bullfighter was busted!

“Oh yes, that photograph marked the end of my bullfighting career,” says Yelamo with a wide smile. “My mother saw the photo and put a stop to that nonsense! ‘No son of mine is going to do that!’ she exclaimed. It wasn’t long before I was sent off to college. I graduated with a Bachelor of Hospitality, Tourism and Linguistics in 1978. While school gave me academic skills, the one thing that I will never forget from my short time as a bullfighter is to have courage.”

Yelamo tells his life story in the comfort of his lovely home in Union Bay, seated in a room filled with furnishings and artifacts that he has collected over a lifetime of global exploration. The walls are accented with bright, bold and beautiful paintings lovingly created by Nadia, his wife of 42 years.  The décor speaks volumes about this tall and lanky Venezuelan, who, despite the absence of his former glittering bullfighter’s attire, still moves with the elegance and grace of a dancer.

With his short-lived adventure as a matador and a lifetime career in the hospitality industry now over, Yelamo is settling comfortably into his new life on Vancouver Island. Retirement, however, is not on his radar. Instead, he is sharing his passion for the culture and history of Latin countries by teaching Spanish for All and dreaming of creating a Hispanic Cultural Centre in partnership with various community stakeholders.

“Whether my students are in a group or a one-on-one session, my Spanish lessons are different because I am not just teaching the language,” explains Yelamo. “Often, someone who wants to learn to speak another language is doing so because they have an upcoming vacation to a specific country. They don’t just want to learn Spanish; they want to learn about that country, too. With my life experiences, I am able to do just that.”

The Yelamo family’s privileged lifestyle provided him with the opportunity to travel the world. By the time he was 20, he had visited most of South and Central America, as well as Europe and parts of North America.

He was intrigued by the many different cultures and how Spanish, in particular, could be spoken in so many countries, with so many different dialects. This was one of the reasons he studied linguistics while in college and why he has taught Spanish for most of his adult life.

The family had even traveled to Canada on several occasions. Once, they attended an event hosted by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and family.  Young Gustavo was thrilled to be able to converse with the Prime Minister in Spanish and has recollections of meeting Justin Trudeau when he was a little boy.

It was on one of those world adventures that Yelamo met a young woman who would eventually become his wife. “It was 1968, and I was 21,” recalls Yelamo. “I was giving presentations at the Montreal Expo for the Venezuelan Embassy and I met a young woman named Nadia Blazek. She was from the Czechoslovakian Republic. I met her again at a party later that evening, and then somewhere else the next day. It seemed that everywhere I went, there she was!”

He learned that Nadia had been a champion kayaker. In an effort to escape the political unrest in her home country, she requested asylum while competing in Austria. She was sent to Canada to live with her uncle, and ended up in Montreal.

“Communicating long distance was very difficult back then, so I invited Nadia to come and visit me for 10 days in Venezuela,” says Yelamo. “She stayed 10 years! We married in 1972.”

During the first few years of their marriage, Gustavo worked with the Venezuelan Tourism Ministry. In his free time, he taught Spanish. Teaching and tutoring provided a break from the busyness of his ‘day job’ and gave him the opportunity to share his passion for both the language and culture of Spanish people. Their son, Miguel was born in 1976.

In 1979, a conversation with a Canadian Ambassador resulted in an offer to work in Canada.  It took more than a year (and several thousand dollars) to obtain a work visa but in 1981, they eagerly packed up and moved to Montreal. A year later, lured by the possibility of more jobs in Calgary, the couple moved west. He worked in various restaurants, as the general manager and maitre d’. Nadia concentrated on being a homemaker and raising their son.

In 1990, the couple opened a new restaurant together. Under Yelamo’s management, the Latin Corner on 4th Street became a hot spot for Calgary’s elite. “We specialized in what I like to call ‘invisible service,’” explains Yelamo. “I would have conversations with the clientele but the rest of the team was to go about their jobs quietly and efficiently. This level of confidentiality and attention were demanded by our guests.”

The Latin Corner was such a huge success that it soon caught the attention of Air Canada’s media and marketing team. The airline produced a short promotional video about the dining establishment and showcased it on their international flights. With Latin Corner listed as one of the best restaurants in Canada, it wasn’t long before they were getting calls for reservations from international guests. Famous names like Pavarotti, Julio Iglesias, and several movie stars soon began appearing on their reservations list.
Challenging economic times forced the closure of Latin Corner, but Yelamo remained in the industry. In 2005, he was hired at Calgary’s prestigious Centini restaurant. He worked full-time there until moving to the Comox Valley in 2009. All the while, he continued to teach Spanish and also Latin dancing.

While it was lucrative, Yelamo’s work in the hospitality industry was also exhausting. Keeping up such a hectic pace was taking its toll.

“I felt like I was drowning,” recalls Yelamo. “The money was great but I had lost all life balance. Miguel was grown and living on his own, so Nadia and I started to think about places we could go where the pace of life would be slower. We explored moving to Spain, Nova Scotia and the Sunshine Coast. Miguel works at WestJet, and he encouraged us to check out the Comox Valley. We came here for a week and were highly surprised by the natural beauty here. We immediately knew we had found a new place to call home. We found this house in Union Bay and moved here in November 2009.”

For the first three years they were living on Vancouver Island, Yelamo kept getting called back to work in Calgary. In addition to helping run Centini, he acted as an associate for Calgary Economic Development, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the Calgary Symphonic Orchestra, helping to plan and stage international events. He also worked with a few local restaurants, teaching customer service skills and assisting with menu planning and such. And he didn’t give up his Spanish lessons. He began offering private and group lessons from Union Bay to Campbell River and all points in between.

“I am like an ambulance,” he adds with a hearty laugh. “I go everywhere! What makes my classes unique is that I don’t just teach Spanish from a book. I engage my students in conversations, and they learn through questions, storytelling and laughter. We also discuss the specific countries they expect to travel to, and explore the culture and unique customs of the region. I have also been known to talk about and taste wine. With my background in the restaurant industry, I am quite the wine aficionado. The classes are lots of fun.”

In addition to teaching private, one-on-one Spanish (or group) lessons in peoples’ homes, Yelamo says that he has been fortunate to connect to several local business people who generously support his work. Deb Dewar from Packables Travel invites him to give talks in her store; Kellie Piersson and John Sanzana of Rhodos Coffee allow him to use their coffee shop to teach classes; and Adil Amlani and family at Sure Copy Courtenay have been generous with their assistance in promotions.

Yelamo is also negotiating with School District 71 to be an interpreter, translator and teacher for international students from Hispanic countries. His broad smile and Spanish accent are sure to be a comfort to those who come here, wide-eyed and nervous about their stay in another country.

Life was going great for the Yelamos but in early 2012, their world would be rocked when Nadia was diagnosed with cancer. The family would need to draw on that bullfighter’s courage to get them through her treatment. This was also the wake-up call that Yelamo needed to be finally able to say ‘Eso es todo!’ (That’s it!) to his Calgary contacts and focus 100 per cent on his new Island life.

“I certainly can’t go back to bullfighting again, not only because I now wear glasses but, more importantly, because I feel regretful for what I did and I would never do that again,” he says. “And I can’t teach Latin dancing either—my knees just can’t take it!”

Thankfully, Nadia has completed her treatments and is feeling well enough to pick up her artists’ brushes again, to focus on her passion of painting. Her husband is now focusing full-time on further developing his Spanish teaching program and is working on a concept for a Hispanic Cultural Centre in the Comox Valley.

“The Hispanic Cultural Centre would be a place where people could go to take Spanish lessons and to access travel information on various Latin countries,” explains Yelamo. “I am currently communicating with the embassies in several Spanish-speaking countries, to gauge their interest in supporting the project. I encourage anyone locally who may be interested in getting involved to contact me. I truly want this to be a community project.

“It is my nature to challenge myself and raise the bar of excellence high,” Yelamo adds. “It is important for me to know that I provide excellent service to my students. My head is full of ideas, and I am so excited about what I am doing that I often wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to start working. I am far too hyper to retire! I just take each day ‘paso a paso’ (one step at a time) and know that with time, patience and hard work, our future looks bright.”

For more information about Gustavo Yelamo and Spanish for All lessons, phone 778-427-3333 or visit: