Volunteering has been a lifelong passion for Reba Noel.
As a Memorial University student in Newfoundland, she and her friends spent their Halloweens bringing treats to kids in hospital. She’s on the board of a community-support agency, volunteers with her church, and spent lots of time helping out when her son was involved in sports.
“Volunteering and giving back is a really big part of my life,” Noel told the Straight by phone. “I think that was instilled in me at a very early age watching the things that my mom did.”
Now the manager for student engagement at Langara College, Noel was among 49 Langarans honoured at a recent ceremony for their impact on the school and the community during the school’s 49-year history. She was hired in 1995 as an assistant in the counselling department.
In 2014, she became responsible for Langara’s VOLT volunteer program, which was founded by two students four years earlier.
“It provides opportunities for students to volunteer both on campus and off campus,” Noel explained.
Noel pointed out that VOLT is not an acronym but a “unit of potential”.
“All of our students are a unit of potential,” she declared. “So, everybody has the potential to give back.”
Students register for the VOLT program and the school keeps track of the amount of time they each spend volunteering. When they reach 50, 100, and 200 hours, they are honoured with a celebration. Recent statistics showed that the students have donated 14,200 hours so far in 2019.
The goal for some is to be designated a “volunteer ambassador”.
“That is presented to you based on the type of hours, how many hours you give back, and in what capacity,” Noel said. “Students are also awarded a certificate, and they’re able to apply for some financial rewards that are available just for volunteers.”
She noted that students in the VOLT program receive a “coveted VOLT T-shirt”, which they only wear while volunteering. Even the employees of Langara don’t receive this.
Participants can also receive letters of reference from Noel’s office as well as from the organizations that they’ve assisted.
“I think the VOLT program is an incredible complement to the Langara culture, having been here for so many years,” Noel said. “Langara really is about community.”
She credited the VOLT volunteer program coordinator, Maggie Stewart, for helping turn it into one of the college’s signature initiatives. The website lists places where students can donate their time and energy while gaining valuable experience and forging connections in the community.
It can be at a Langara immunization clinic or with a long list of outside agencies, including the Richmond Music Festival, Latincouver Cultural and Business Society, B.C. Achievement Foundation, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Canadian Red Cross. And Stewart provides the students with extensive training, according to Noel.
“Students build relationships with other students whom they might not otherwise have come in contact with,” Noel said. “And they find out that at the base of it, there are similarities and they do have things in common. So they start to build a community that way.”
To ensure that the school is a good neighbour, some students in the VOLT program pick up trash within a two-block area around the main campus on West 49th Avenue. Or they’ll remove invasive plant species from the grounds.
The office of community engagement also provides three low-risk and low-barrier group volunteering opportunities per term through a program called C Change, which is short for “community change”.
These initiatives are aimed at improving neighbourhoods either socially, environmentally, or economically. As an example, a school bus took students from the college to Iona Beach Regional Park in September to remove invasive plant species and replace them with native plant species.
The same month, another group of students visited VanDusen Botanical Garden to help fill bags of soil for its soil sale.
On Monday (November 18), C Change volunteers will travel together to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank depot in Burnaby to help sort food and check expiry dates, thereby assisting low-income people.
Noel said that in conjunction with the VOLT program, Langara launched a new program this year called LIST, which is an acronym for Langara International Service Trip. It enabled 11 students to go to Kenya in August to volunteer on a sustainable-farming initiative and a school project in the East African country. “They were helping carry water for some of the mamas,” she revealed.
That’s not all. The office of community engagement also worked with other departments to encourage 100 student volunteers to join the GO team. GO is an acronym for “Get Oriented”.
GO team members played a big part in the school’s first community day in June, which featured a free concert by local rockers 54-40, as well as at the recent 49 Langarans celebration.
“You’ll see volunteers at pretty well any and every event on campus,” Noel said.
The president and CEO of Langara College, Lane Trotter, likes to quote former U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s famous statement in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
The same spirit permeates the VOLT program, which is designed to build a sense of community among the volunteers by breaking down barriers on campus.
“It allows them to see an instructor in a different light and to see our president marching up the street instead of how they would envision a president, sitting behind a desk,” Noel said. “People get to know and appreciate each other.”