It was sometime last winter when Mike McAlpine experienced his most memorable night on “The Van,” a motor home run by Dans La Rue volunteers. Five nights a week, “The Van,” drives along the streets of downtown Montreal offering hot dogs, hot drinks and basic hygiene products to homeless youth.
McAlpine recalls being with some fellow volunteers on the van when one kid came up to them completely naked &- covered in a blanket. The Concordia student says he was shocked the boy had been waiting outside in the winter for the van, despite the state he was in. When McAlpine approached the boy and asked him if he could get him some clothes, the boy simply said, “socks would be sweet.”
“I found this story perfectly illustrated the kid’s expectations of others,” says McAlpine.
The 27-year-old mechanical engineering major has been volunteering at Dans La Rue a little over two years. Dans La Rue is a non-profit organization that helps at-risk and homeless youth in Montreal get off the streets. Through their services, which include providing the youths with food, shelter and health-care, they help them rebuild their lives. Before volunteering on “The Van,” he worked part-time in the organization’s warehouse handling the donations.
“I wanted to start volunteering because, after having worked there for a number of months, I just loved the kids and loved helping them,” says McAlpine. “I realized that I was very fortunate to have a safety net, my family, and that the vast majority of the kids didn’t have anything like that, or even worse &- their family had actually done damage to their self esteem rather than helping.”
Volunteering for an organization like Dans La Rue is only one of the numerous ways students are able to get involved in their community and help those in need. Both Concordia and the volunteer bureaus around Montreal offer students numerous opportunities to volunteer locally and abroad.
The biggest problem according to Concordia’s Volunteer in Action president Eileen Wong, is most students aren’t aware there are volunteer initiatives on campus. Her group aims to promote community involvement on campus through different gatherings and volunteering initiatives. Their last event was a production of The Vagina Monologues that raised money for the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and the City of Joy, a safe house for women in the Congo.
According to Valerie Millette, a member of the Concordia University Volunteer Initiative, a lack of awareness isn’t the only problem. She explains that groups and opportunities on campus are poorly organized which makes it hard for students to get involved. That is why Millette, along with representatives from several forums on campus, worked to create the Volunteer Initiative. The less than two-year-old organization does most of its work through a website that’s updated regularly by Millette.
“We wanted to promote volunteering and make it more accessible,” says Millette. “We wanted to create one portal where Concordia students could go to and see all the opportunities in one place.” The website also offers students advice on why volunteering is important, how to get started, where to go to get more information and lists current opportunities available for students who want to get involved.
Improving yourself and the lives of others: the personal and professional rewards of volunteering
“Volunteering is a win-win situation,” says Millette. “There is certainly something the community and society as a whole gets out of it, but there’s so much that the volunteer gets out of it too.” For McAlpine, the most satisfying part about volunteering at Dans La Rue, is the connections he has made with the children whom he has helped.
“I work with great people, and the kids always make me laugh,” he says. “Though, there are some rough times, it feels good to help them through them. They are great people who have been pushed aside.”
Art education student Erin Richardson, experienced a similar situation when she took part in Concordia’s Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic this past February. Alongside fellow Concordia students, Richardson spent her spring break teaching English in a local elementary school, running programs at an orphanage and spreading gravel along dirt roads to make them accessible when it rained. Her most memorable experience happened on the last night at the orphanage. A girl who Richardson had hardly interacted with on her trip, asked her to pick her up and hold her.
“I remember she was hugging me so so tight,” says Richardson. “And all the kids at the orphanage are so loving and they made you feel just so important for being there.”
According to Martine Poupard, who is in charge of promotion and raising awareness about volunteering at the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal, feeling useful is very valuable and can help individuals gain self-confidence. “Sometimes as a volunteer, you have chances to have more responsibility that you may not get in the work field,” says Poupard. “It is really empowering having [responsibility], plus it feels good making a difference doing volunteer work for causes you really believe in.”
Poupard describes the Bureau as the bridge between organizations looking for volunteers and individuals who want to start volunteering. The site lists hundreds of positions that can be browsed by type of volunteer opportunity, location, and by demographic. There’s also a section dedicated to helping students who want to start volunteering by offering them the chance to meet with a placement counselor who’ll work with them to find a position related to their interest and field of study.
Wong, who is studying psychology at Concordia, says volunteering at the Centre for Arts in Human Development gave her a chance to further explore what she was learning in her classes as well as explore herself. The Centre, which is affiliated with the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia, promotes growth and development for people with intellectual, developmental and mental health disabilities through creative art therapies.”Volunteering really opens your mind,” says Wong. “I really learnt a lot about myself &- my weaknesses and strengths and improved my social skills.”
Jamie Robinson, president of the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program, says one of the most important lessons to be learned from volunteering, whether at home or abroad, is that human contact is more important than money. “The power of volunteerism is in those interpersonal relationships that you build, those connections that you build and the work that people can do together,” explains Robinson.
C.V.A.P. is a non-profit organization based at Concordia whose purpose is to promote anti-poverty initiatives in the developing world, particularly in Uganda. Each summer, nearly 50 students travel to northern Uganda where they partake in different volunteer projects for a two-month period. The organization also has initiatives here in Montreal during the year, to help spread awareness about their cause and the crises in Uganda.
The program’s administrative assistant Thomas Prince, who travelled with Robinson to Gulu, Uganda last summer, thinks nearly everyone on the trip learned a lot about themselves. “As soon as you are in a foreign country you deal with some of the challenges &- there is not always electricity, not always access to water,” explains Prince. “You really learn that some things you thought you could never handle, you can handle really easily and some things you took for granted as comforts and wouldn’t think you would miss, you actually miss a lot more than you expected.”
On top of the personal benefits that come from volunteering, there are also significant professional gains. According to Millette, who in addition to being a member of the Concordia University Volunteer Initiative, is also a career counselor at the university, individuals can learn valuable work experience like teamwork, organization and how to take initiative by volunteering in their communities. She says it further allows students to explore different career options, meet new people and build personal and professional networks.
Another major advantage to volunteering says Poupard, is it can help a student determine if they’re studying in the right field, all the while giving them a chance to get references that can be useful if they have little job experience. Poupard meets with numerous human resource directors and employers and says it’s quite common for a company that is stuck deciding between two job candidates to hire the one who has volunteer experience. “They assume that since you are involved in your community, you are social, you have leadership skills, and that you don’t like to waste your time,” says Poupard.
The lowdown on volunteering: being prepared to make a commitment and what to expect to avoid disappointment
Many first-time volunteers tend to underestimate how serious a commitment volunteering is and consequently encounter problems with their superiors.
“[Volunteering] comes with a lot of responsibility,” warns Millette. “Students might think the schedule is relaxed or is easy going but you must take it just as seriously as you would a job.”
She says often individuals are shocked when a volunteer organization requires certain skills, like language fluency, or for the volunteer to be a certain age. An organization may also ask for an interview and request permission to check one’s references.
Another issue students face according to Poupard, is a feeling of disappointment. “New volunteers have this goal that they are going change the world,” says Poupard. “But obviously that doesn’t happen as quickly as they would like.”
This is something Prince personally experienced when he was volunteering in Uganda. “With international development, you can’t be looking to see quick results from the work you are doing. It has to be a process where each step you are taking, you are considering the various consequences and outcomes from it,” explains Prince.
Robinson agrees with Prince and adds that one of the greatest misconceptions people have when going abroad is the relative impact they will have on the community. “A lot of people have this idea that they are going to save the community they are working with,” says Robinson. “But you are working with the community partners on their goals where they are the experts, they know the process by which their community can improve and grow.”
She stresses that because this is the case, it’s important to remain humble and be willing to work hard, no matter what.
Local volunteer opportunities come with their fair share of difficulties too, explains McAlpine. He warns prospective volunteers that working at an organization like Dans La Rue isn’t easy.
“A lot of new volunteers don’t really understand that volunteering is work, its tiring,” says McAlpine. “We are not trained intervention workers, we are there to listen and give [the kids] what they need for the next twenty-four hours and get them to begin going regularly to the day centre where the professionals can help.”
One thing McAlpine has noticed about volunteers is that some tend to get involved for all the wrong reasons. “The goal of volunteering is to help others. Its not meant to help the volunteers,” says McAlpine. “So do not do it as a way to make yourself feel better.”
The make-up of a volunteer: preparation and passion
In order to avoid volunteer commitments that can be difficult to keep, Millette suggests taking a step back and thinking about the opportunity and deciding what you want to get out of it, the time you have to dedicate to it and to be realistic about both those things.
Because there are so many opportunities, Millette advises students to think about the skills they want to develop and use. This will prevent individuals from jumping into the first thing they see and help them find the position best suited for them. Millette said students should know that just because an opportunity isn’t posted, it can still exist. “Contact a volunteer coordinator at the organization, see what is available,” suggests Millette. “Or contact them and make a proposal of what you want and can do there.”
In order to avoid some of the common mistakes Millette mentioned, Poupard advises going onto the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal’s website and browsing the over 800 opportunities and researching them thoroughly. Having knowledge about the organization before you apply is very important because it allows you to better understand what your job will be and avoid some of this disappointments.
Finally, Millette warns students that community organizations require you to be flexible and understanding of the resources they have available. Most importantly though, it is instrumental for an individual to find something they enjoy enough to commit to. “The best quality for a volunteer is wanting to be there because you actually care about helping out this organization,” says Millette. “It will make all the difference in the world of how you are going to engage there and what you will be able to give and contribute.”
Volunteering information to help get you started
Alternative Spring Break
The week-long program happens during the university’s reading week and is open to all Concordia students. Students can volunteer in either the Dominican Republic or Peru.
Showcase: Wednesday March 24 at 3:30 p.m. in MB 5.215
For more information email: email@example.com or visit: asb.concordia.ca
Centre for Arts in Human Development
Volunteers socialize with adults with developmental disabilities at the Loyola Campus.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and or 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays
For more information contact Poppy Baktis, the Logistical Coordinator at 514-848-8619
Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (C.V.A.P.)
The purpose is to create avenues for students to provide volunteer services in targeted countries of the developing world particularly Africa.
The deadline for applying to the Summer 2011 will be in mid-novmeber.
For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org or check out: concordiavolunteers.org
C.V.A.P.’s local involvement
The Mercy Project’s goal is to support healthcare for disadvantaged communities. For more information visit: themercyproject.org or contact email@example.com
The United Project aims to support youth empowerment through sports. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyim aims to support community development in Gulu through of education. For more information visit: anyim.org
Dans La Rue
In order to get involved, volunteers must sign up for an orientation session by calling Chez Pops at 514-526-7677, or emailing email@example.com
Requirements: Volunteers must be over 18 and will have to have a police check before joining the team
After the session, volunteers will have one-on-one meetings the with volunteer coordinator to discuss their objectives and goals.
Group volunteer opportunities available.
Length of commitment: two to four days a month.
For more information visit: danslarue.com
Volunteer Bureau of Montreal
The Volunteer Bureau of Montreal promotes volunteerism by offering an extensive database of volunteer opportunities for individuals looking to get involved. The Bureau also offers the community organization support and helps them recruit suitable volunteers.
There are over 800 opportunities on the website that can be searched by organization, type of work, length of activity, location and most recent requests.
To make an appointment with a placement counselor call 514-842-3351.
Interviews are schedule Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in their downtown offices at 2015, Drummond St., Suite 300.
Volunteers in Action
To get involved, stop by the office at 2150 Bishop Annex K-205 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Concordia University Volunteer Initiative (CUVI)
The initiative promotes community involvement on the Concordia campus by listing volunteer opportunities and offering information to students.
For more information visit: volunteer.concordia.ca