Bianca Da Costa has been visiting Germany for over 30 years. She starts her trips by seeing her cousins in the Netherlands and then takes a nine-hour train ride to stay with her friends in Stuttgart. A self-identified travel junkie, Da Costa would rather explore cultural sites and local history than sit on the beach at a resort. 

Morocco, Spain, Italy, France and Argentina are some of the other places she’s explored over the years. But when COVID-19 hit last year, her travel plans were grounded.

Breakfast leads to a full course load

Da Costa spent most of her career working in financial services. With retirement approaching in 2020, she started to actively plan where she would visit and what she would do. Unfortunately, her golden years began at the cusp of a worldwide pandemic and she had to shift her focus to how she could experience the world from the comfort of her living room. 

“I was looking for something mentally stimulating,” says Da Costa. “Staring at a screen all day can become difficult. I needed human connection.”

Da Costa wasn’t active with the YMCA of Greater Toronto prior to the pandemic. It’s something that she had always wanted to do when she had more free time. But when she tuned in to an episode of Breakfast Television in June 2020, everything changed.

A feature on the newly launched site, The Bright Spot,  piqued her interest and she decided to visit the online community to learn more about the activities offered.

A taste of the world

Due to her love of travel, she started signing up for classes that catered to her international ambitions. Food for Thought helped her get a taste for other places and people. The 30-minute class is made up of regular participants, with culinary topics chosen based on cultural practices or seasonal holidays. People will bring spices, oils, or herbs and talk about traditions and preparation. 

While Da Costa wouldn’t be boarding a plane anytime soon, she did the next best thing and also signed up for Virtual Vacation. The travel activity allowed her to talk to other jet setters about their experiences, as well as share some stories of her own.

A few months ago, Da Costa volunteered to present about her time in southern Germany. She believes that letting people in on small details paint a big picture of what you can expect. It’s that world-building that makes you want to go there.  

“It’s been a challenging year for people who love to travel,” says Da Costa. “But I take each day as it comes. These programs are the next best thing to being there yourself.”

Speaking from the heart

While food and travel stories have helped Da Costa get a sense of other cultures, she also took advantage of The Bright Spot’s language classes to help her post-pandemic. She’s currently taking a Tuesday Spanish class to improve her vocabulary and communication skills.

Over a dozen people attend the weekly class, where participants learn through structured conversations. The introductory-level program covers language basics but over the past year, participants have improved their vocabulary extensively. In the future, they hope to meet in person, possibly in a country where Spanish is the native tongue.

“I love the Spanish class,” says Da Costa. “I have very dear friends who live in Spain and I’d love to go back to Barcelona. It’ll be great to actually order from a menu or have a conversation with someone.”

What’s up next?

When asked what has stood out most about The Bright Spot programming, Da Costa says it was how fast it all came together and the quality of the classes taken. She’s even brought the sponsorship opportunity to her past employer to see if they were open to supporting the initiative in the future.

“I hope the momentum continues, “ says Da Costa. “30 to 45 minutes to connect in the virtual world is better than not being able to connect at all. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see the globe again, but The Bright Spot has made a world of difference for me.”