Don’t call Lynda Gerty if you’re looking for corny platitudes about volunteerism. Yes, the spokesperson for Vantage Point (formerly known as Volunteer Vancouver) argues that a summer in the nonprofit trenches has specific benefits for the under-30 crew. But those who are simply seeking a quick résumé builder or a leg up on university admissions are missing a huge opportunity in the swiftly changing world of “external talent”. That’s the new moniker for the highly engaged 21st-century volunteer.
“Increasingly, what’s lacking in our lives is connection and the opportunity to have a meaningful experience with other people on a project you are excited about,” Gerty told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “I’m not all hearts and flowers. There has to be some thought put into it [on the part of the volunteer]. The clearer you can be with what you’re looking for, the more likely you’ll end up with a satisfying experience.”
The days of nonprofits soliciting passive workers to lick envelopes and perform other menial tasks are over, she said. Today’s volunteers—young people included—bring their own passion and skills. Vantage Point helps organizations learn how to support these folk.
Literally hundreds of local opportunities are listed on the govolunteer.ca website: paleontology mentor for the Vancouver school board; gardener for the Coquitlam Heritage Society; artist for the 3H Craftworks Society, to draw faces on puppets made by disabled adults. Et cetera.
Gerty’s own volunteer story mirrors the changes in volunteerism over the past two decades. At 16, she worked the phones for Canadian Blood Services, performing an important but largely rote job. In her 20s, she used more expertise in working the Friday overnight shift at the Surrey Crisis Centre. By her late 20s, volunteerism had taken over: between her corporate job and her volunteer commitments to Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, she was happily working 90 hours a week. Then she dialled herself back from both, and the next obvious step was work with Vantage Point.
So why should young people volunteer?
“You never know where it’s going to lead you,” Gerty explained. “I mean, you can plan that at 18 you’ll have this career and then I’m going to be this when I’m 50. Maybe there are some people whose lives are really like that, but they’re not the people I know.
“I think, mostly, you’re at the right place at the right time, and you do something that leads to something else and something else. Volunteering can put you in that right place that leads you to something else.”
In fact, 58 percent of youths aged 15 to 24 spend some of their free time working for free—the largest percentage of any age group in Canada. That’s according to the 2007 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. Single people, women, those with university degrees, and those earning more than $100,000 are also likely to volunteer.
So, yes, summer volunteering is great for building a career and an education. But Gerty’s message is: if you can squeeze more out of the experience than just a line on a résumé, it will often open unexpected doors.
Here are four young people with a significant summer ahead.
Former wild child battles invasive plants Every week in Pacific Spirit Park, Etienne Levasseur leads groups of young people armed with saws, clippers, and shovels into the forest. There, they rout out invasive species, returning the forest to its healthy indigenous state.
“We cut, yank, and wrestle the plants,” he told the Straight. “The biggest holly tree I’ve seen was 30 feet high, with a trunk eight inches in diameter at chest height. It was very rewarding to get it out and see the big root ball. It’s a good way to spend extra energy, to be out in the forest. And it’s a pleasure seeing others working in the forest. Seeing young people—especially those who are not used to doing hard work—that’s rewarding to me.”¦It’s also a great excuse to get out there.”
For an urban forest, it’s a wild place, and 19-year-old Levasseur has a wild past. After some preteen legal trouble, his school expelled him at the end of Grade 7. For two years, he stayed out of school, drifting and getting into more trouble. (“They did not particularly chase me down” to return to school, he said.) By the end of what should have been his Grade 9 year, he was done with that chapter of his life. The Take a Hike alternative-education program at John Oliver Secondary School, which balances academic goals with outdoor-adventure-based activities for at-risk youth, got him back in school and into the forest. Then he started volunteering with the Pacific Spirit Park Society.
“I knew I ought to be in school. It’s fun and grand to have that instant gratification, but you’ve got to look at your future and how it’s going to affect you later in life. I was happy to get it [rebellion] out of my system early.”
Levasseur graduates this month, and he plans to take the pre-apprenticeship carpentry program at BCIT in September, while keeping his heartfelt commitment to the forest.
Environmentalist finds synergy with animals Laura Page doesn’t mind shelling out for her eggs. The ones she buys—certified organic—cost about $4 per half-dozen, or more than twice the price of battery-laid eggs. This summer, as part of a temporary position through the Vancouver Humane Society, she’s working to convince shoppers to choose more ethical eggs. Look for her at community events and festivals: she’s the summer face for the VHS Chicken Out! campaign.
“My friends are mostly onboard, but they’re students so they’re worried about the price [of eggs],” the 22-year-old geography and environmental-policy student told the Straight. “Chickens are the worst-treated animals pretty much ever. So it’s good to help the ones who need it the most.”
This is Page’s third summer with VHS. Her volunteer past, including stints as a camp counsellor and with Habitat for Humanity, helped her secure this meaningful summer work.
VHS is funded for her position by Canada Summer Jobs. It’s a federal program that subsidizes the cost of hiring summer students for small businesses, nonprofits, and government departments. Jobs such as Page’s are listed at Service Canada’s Job Bank. Apart from its feel-good vibe, Page said, the work helps her in unexpected ways. First, her school writing improved after her boss at VHS carefully proofread her work during her first year there. Second, it has helped define a career goal: moving the spheres of animal welfare and the environment together.
She has also learned how easy it is to score a summer job with a passionate nonprofit.
“Just apply,” she advised students looking for a more significant summer. “I wasn’t sure if I was qualified when I applied for this position, so I just put in my application. Take risks. Put yourself out there and don’t be scared. You’ll meet amazing people and do cool things.”
It’s a dirty job, and everyone wants to do it On the steep hills of South Vancouver this summer, a handful of teens will be moving food scraps from grocery stores and restaurants to one giant composter. More impressively, they’ll be doing it on bikes, for no pay. The David Thompson Secondary School students—Angela To, Jessica Ye, Madeleine Tsoi, Teresa Law, and May Yuen—won a small grant from the Vancouver Foundation to make their dream come true. Helping them was former teen volunteer Chelan Wallace.
“We discovered there were some grocery stores in the neighbourhood that were sending up to 500 pounds of food waste to the landfill each week,” Wallace told the Straight in a phone interview, noting that David Thompson is one of three schools in the city with an Earth Tub composter, which is capable of processing 150 pounds of food per day.
“That stuff isn’t waste; it has a lot of potential. Someone else’s crap is our treasure.”
The project, BioCYCLE, was inspired by a similar initiative at Britannia Secondary School. In fact, several groups of young people across the city are involved in hands-on waste diversion, Wallace reported. She should know. After spending her own teen years doing green volunteer gigs, she followed up with a food-security-oriented UBC sociology degree. Since graduating in 2010, she’s worked with many environmentally minded youths through South Vancouver Neighbourhood House.
“I definitely haven’t planned out my life,” the 22-year-old said. “It just seems like all the jobs I keep getting fit into a pattern. So, suddenly, I’ve fallen into this really neat community.”
For the five teens, working with Wallace has had a couple of benefits. First, she connected them with the Vancouver Foundation youth-philanthropy grant (a great option for young people who have an original volunteer idea they’d like to pursue). Second, she’s helping them take the simple composting project to the next level. This summer, the crew and their supporters will be making a lip dub, donating compost to B.C. Housing and schools, networking with other groups, and hitting the road.
Refugee teen gives what he didn’t receive For years after he came to Canada from Colombia as a nine-year-old, Diego Cardona Ospina was pretty isolated. He was almost always the only Latin-American student in his classes. He struggled with learning English, using public transit, and gaining other basic urban skills. He didn’t understand how to fit in or why people sometimes treated him poorly. Then someone suggested he join MY Circle, an 80-hour community leadership program for teenage newcomers to Canada run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. For him, everything changed.
“Before I started community action, I didn’t do much,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “I’d go to school, come home, and read books. Now that I’ve seen how much help is needed in my community, I haven’t stopped. I won’t stop.”
The 15-year-old found his passion. With a $20 snack budget from Britannia Community Centre, he started a peer-support and antidiscrimination group for young Latin Canadians. He passes on the leadership knowledge he gained at MY Circle, in the hope that young people will take it with them and start groups of their own. The group has also produced an antidiscrimination video.
“What does discrimination look like?” Cardona Ospina asked. “To me, it’s being on the SkyTrain and being the only one asked for a bus pass. Or people look at you like you’re normal until they hear your accent. As soon as I tell them I’m from Colombia, they assume I’m the son of drug traffickers or drug lords. It’s hard to go through that process. People have a picture of you if you’re from a certain place.”
In fact, when Cardona Ospina was still a child, his father was kidnapped and murdered for political reasons, “for what he believed in”, he explained. After his mom moved the kids away from their hometown, the threats followed them, so they fled to Canada as refugees. Now the teen is community-organizing, offering to even newer arrivals from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and El Salvador the peer support that wasn’t in place for him.
Through his volunteer work, he’s learned two important lessons. First, Cardona Ospina said, if you want to design your own volunteer gig, it’s a good idea to reach out to other groups and individuals who may want to help you. Get everyone you can think of onboard. Second, don’t wait for the money to be in place before you begin.
“I’m definitely keeping this going whether we get funding or not,” said Cardona Ospina, who starts Grade 10 in September. “It’s possible to do things if you have the will. You don’t need hundreds of dollars.”
He plans to study social work and political science at university, and possibly pursue a career in politics.
These are ordinary people who are embarking on extraordinary summers. Both Levasseur and Page plugged in to existing opportunities that inflamed their interests. Wallace’s gang and Cardona Ospina let their passions drive them and later found the cash to support their visions.
As a how-to, Gerty argues that the most important ingredients for young people who want to create a significant summer for themselves are some basic self-knowledge (govolunteer.ca is a great place to start considering the question “What do you care about?”) and the moxie to make it happen.
Rates of volunteerism crash after age 25, once careers start and kids are born. For those who are young enough to take their summers “off”, this city offers extraordinary experiences to anyone ballsy enough to grab on.