I still remember one of the first volunteer jobs I had -- in a homeless shelter in Kingston, Ontario. My decision to start volunteering had not been planned. I had seen an ad in the local newspaper advertising for volunteers and thought this would be a good way to get involved in the community and to get out of my comfort zone which, at that time, consisted of the Queen's University library, campus bar, class and the occasional late-night poutine run.
I still remember feeling nervous as I walked the 10 blocks to the shelter to start my first shift. This was my first experience working with the homeless, after all, and I didn't know what to expect. Some of the clients at the shelter were alcoholics and drug addicts, others had escaped abusive relationships and were unable to find work. Didn't Kingston have a very high criminal population? What could I possibly offer them? How could I relate to them?
As I stepped into the building, which was actually two houses that had been converted into a shelter, I was immediately taken aback.
The atmosphere was warm and inviting and it did, in fact, feel more like a home than the cold and sterile environment I had imagined.
In the kitchen, a middle-aged volunteer couple was preparing dinner for about 15 or so clients seated in the living room talking, watching tv or reading.
Over the next few months I would meet so many fascinating individuals and learn their stories, their struggles and what their hopes were for the future. I saw them all as people and not as the labels we so often apply to those in their situation: "drug addict," "prostitute," "alcoholic."
I also learned a lot about myself during this experience -- my assumptions about working in a homeless shelter had been way out in left field. It's a lesson I try to remember to this day.
So great are the benefits of volunteer work that I think it should be made mandatory for university graduates. Hey, why not do something to encourage students to escape the campus bubble that envelops most of us from September to April? Why not make students give 50 hours of their time to a worthy cause in order to get their degree? Most of us spend way more time than that procrastinating anyways.
Even as I write this, the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Calgary, which pairs adult mentors with young people in the community, has made a plea for more men in the Calgary area to volunteer as big brothers.
According to the cbc, little brothers currently have to wait 12-18 months to be paired with a mentor.
I wonder how many young men at the University of Calgary could serve as role models? Likely, all of them.
It's so easy to focus our attentions on studying, preparing for exams and writing papers while ignoring the needs around us. There's a whole world out there kids! Why not give something back?