Jorge Serrano stands near a display of photographs on his Alexandra Avenue driveway, chronicling his years of charitable work on Sept. 7, 2009.
  • Jorge Serrano stands near a display of photographs on his Alexandra Avenue driveway, chronicling his years of charitable work on Sept. 7, 2009.
  • Jorge Serrano, pictured here on Sept. 15, 1997, has reached his goal and has enough toys to send to the poor in Guatemala this Christmas.

Jorge Serrano’s volunteer efforts helped Guatemalan children

The man who spoke fluent Spanish, French, German and English, who wrote poetry and devoured Shakespeare’s great works, was also the man who gathered containers of donations for Guatemalan children.

Jorge Serrano’s mind was large, and his heart even larger.

Jorge’s beginnings were humble. He was born on Nov. 25, 1930, in Guatemala, the youngest boy in a family of 10. He had befriended a Cambridge native who was teaching at the international school, where Jorge both worked and took courses.

Thomas Ballantyne Irving (T.B. Irving), born in the Preston area of Cambridge, was an acclaimed Muslim scholar, professor and author. He had taught for a time in Guatemala where he met young Jorge, and when the country destabilized, Jorge’s family scattered to safety. T.B. sent the teen to stay with his parents in Cambridge in 1948.

Jorge’s first stop on the long train ride from Guatemala to Canada was Chicago in winter, where he faced blistering winds and mountains of snow. The boy from the tropics wasn't prepared for such conditions.

“He thought he was going to die,” said his son, Carlos Serrano.

Once in Cambridge, Jorge worked as a truck driver, a Canadian coworker helping him learn how to handle winter driving.

His next job was for a new company, industrial product distributor Meyer-Mercer Inc., and it’s thought that Jorge was their first employee.

Jorge settled into his new community, joining soccer teams, which is where Carlos believes his father learned to speak German, given the dominance of the language in Waterloo Region. He’s not sure where his autodidactic father learned French or why he had started to learn Russian.

“He was a man of many talents and always joyful with his place in the world,” said Susan Giesler, a friend of the family. “Such a gentleman and a gentle man.”

When he felt stable enough to marry, Jorge returned to Guatemala for his sweetheart, Olga Herrera. They married in 1953, returning to Canada. Olga was not happy.

“For the first year or two, she was homesick and cried and cried,” said Carlos.

Oddly, Olga adapted to the cold weather better than her husband. They had three children: Carlos, Ana Maria and Sonia.

The couple settled into domestic life, Carlos working full time. In the evening, he taught Spanish and ballroom dancing. He would often be called on as a translator, and Carlos remembers the story of his father helping a delegation of cattle breeders from Spain. They might have shared a language, but coming from opposite sides of the globe, the nuances of language sometimes led to funny misunderstandings. One such occurrence happened during a tour of an area farm, and the breeders were excited referring to some beauties. Jorge thought they were talking about women and was a little horrified. The men were, it turned out, admiring cows.

Jorge usually had a couple of jobs, but he made time for recreation. Carlos said his father was an exceptional dancer but couldn’t master musical instruments. He tried piano, guitar and had the desire, if not the talent.

His volunteer work for Guatemalan children, especially orphans, began during a visit to his homeland to see his mother. She asked, before his journey, if he could bring items to help the poor. It was the beginning of 25 years of collecting donations, including clothing, vitamins, wheelchairs, medical supplies and toys, then arranging a shipping container. He talked everyone into offering their services for free. Even his employer provided him with warehouse space.

Once in Guatemala, the donations were distributed through the office of the president’s wife. And he didn’t let his generosity stop there. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions triggered Jorge to gather supplies and ship them to places like Colombia, El Salvador and Jamaica.

Jorge finally decided to slow down all this exhaustive volunteer work in the late 1990s, and at the time, he admitted his regrets to a reporter.

“I began thinking about the kids. It breaks my heart not to send them anything,” he said. “So I gathered the strength.”

With support from Olga, international shipments continued, stopping again in 2001.

Jorge and Olga personally escorted the last shipment through Cuba in 2002 when he was 73, though he continued his charity work in Waterloo Region.

In a 2009 Record article, Jorge explained his motivation for volunteering.

“You do things not to get paid, not for the recognition, but just for the satisfaction that you helped that person,” he said. “Do something for others without thinking of what profit you might get.”

In the last few years, both Olga and Jorge began suffering gradual declines. He died in his sleep, Oct. 19, 2021.

Freelance writer Valerie Hill is a former Record reporter. She can be reached by email at

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