On Volunteering

Photo by Crystal Marie SingVolunteer Level: Newbie & Loving It

My afternoon caffeine fix was no longer necessary. After clearing it with my newly minted employer, I spent four Thursday afternoons volunteering with the Writers’ Exchange. I dove head-first into an in-school program exploring the everyday heroes of a classroom of children. Each week we completed a different task, from writing interview questions, to drawing a picture to accompany the completed interview. Sure, at the end of the four weeks the children created a book complete with their own words and illustrations, but what I got out of the experience was much different.

1. Flâneurial delight

Out of the 4 Thursdays that I packed up and hiked to Strathcona, I got lucky with 3 beautiful days. I would walk through a park buzzing with people (and dogs, obviously). One day there was a group of volunteers handing out sandwiches and dog food (aw!). The short-ish walk was my palette cleanser between working on the computer, and being completely present with a group of children. Clearing my mind with a jaunt through Vancouver's colourful and diverse neighbourhoods was the perfect preamble to the classroom.

2. Energy vampire

I walked away from the school every afternoon with a skip in my step. Pair the ever-changing fresh perspective of young eyes, with an alarming amount of energy, and you have a solid coffee replacement. I have long known the benefits of venturing outside of my comfort zone, but that doesn't always make it easier. Attempting to facilitate discussion and participation among children reminded me that you can't always follow a script. Script-less and exposed for the adult I am (when did that happen?!), it was my chance to listen without pretence. Like a good TED talk, the group of children I worked with reminded me of the sensitivity and vulnerability we're all born with. Every afternoon I returned to work with a childlike wonder and renewed enthusiasm for everything I have in my life.

3. Guide, don't show

I don't know where I picked up this bad habit, but I tend to avoid any rigmarole and just give the answer when someone asks a difficult question. With kids, they're mostly difficult questions, in that the answers are often a matter of opinion. I don't want to indoctrinate anyone with my way of thinking, so I had to learn to coax the student's own answers from them. I was reminded of my hesitation to display my "work" that might be wrong. Writing that goes unseen by any other eyes, simply because I'm terribly frightened that no one will like it. Someone else showing me their writing would not help that situation, just like my answers would not help the children form their own. Instead, I aimed to create a supportive stage for the children to present their own ideas. It's still a work in progress, but I'm in the perfect position to improve my approach. My experience volunteering during the in-school project was so pleasant that I continue to volunteer with the after-school program. The flexibility and organization of the Writers' Exchange is impressive from a volunteer point-of-view. But, the children are the main draw for all the reasons I listed above, and so much more. Their dedication to trying new things with their own unique approach is an incredibly valuable lesson for any writer. I would highly encourage any lover of literacy to consider taking the plunge.

Volunteer here!